‘Freeze the keys’ key-locking mechanism aims to prevent suicide among veterans

April 17, 2021
Engineers and social workers have developed a device intended to prevent quick access to a gun during a mental health crisis. (Unsplash/Thomas Def)

Engineers and social workers have developed a device intended to prevent quick access to a gun during a mental health crisis. (Unsplash/Thomas Def)

University of Pittsburgh engineers teamed up with Department of Veterans Affairs social workers to develop a prototype of a key-locking device that may one day prevent veterans who are at risk of suicide from accessing a gun during a moment of crisis.

The researchers created a silicone cup, about the size of a cocktail tumbler, that suspends a gun-case key in ice to prevent access for at least five minutes, as detailed in a U.S. patent application published March 25. This critical delay gives someone in the midst of a mental health emergency an opportunity to reconsider his or her actions, according to the application's authors. The device prevents access by securing the key inside a specially designed slot, which sits in the center of the cup and prevents the key from moving within the ice. As a backup fail-safe, a small shell will fuse to the key if a user tries to access the key immediately by applying extremely high heat to the ice in an attempt to melt it.

Because people in a mental health crisis may be willing to go to extreme measures, the designers had to consider household methods that could potentially be used to reach the keys before the time limit expires.

"That means, you know, what if they throw it in boiling water? What if they toss it in the microwave, or they toss it in the oven? Or hit it with a hammer?" Rory A. Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a co-inventor of the device and a U.S. Army veteran, told The Academic Times

Katie Gaines, a senior at Pitt and a co-author of the patent application, experimented with early prototypes while quarantining at her family's home in Kentucky during the pandemic. These procedures involved placing the device in a microwave or oven for different lengths of time to see how the liquid inside would react. "I was with my parents because I went home. So we just made a fun project out of all of it," Gaines explained. "People get really creative. So we also had to get really creative to try to think ahead of them to prevent that from happening."

The first prototype of the cylinder to contain the key was made from a special photochemically bound powder, but the researchers found that the design was too brittle to withstand interventions. Instead, they chose a more accessible, low-maintenance option: a smaller device that suspends a key in a liquid. A user stores the device in a freezer and simply takes it out or runs warm tap water over it to begin the thawing process. Although the researchers conducted most of their experiments with frozen water, the patent application explained that other liquids could also be used in the device.

The engineers' design had to strike a careful balance — allowing access to those who need their guns for practical or recreational purposes while simultaneously preventing access to those who are in immediate danger of hurting themselves. "You don't want people to not use it because it takes a week to get to your gun lock," Cooper said. "You don't want to have to thaw your keys out two months in advance."

More than 17 U.S. military veterans die by suicide every day, amounting to more than 6,300 deaths per year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report. Firearms are used in around two-thirds of the cases, and it appears that reducing easy access to weapons could play an important role in preventing suicide across all populations. Suicides in the general population are also on the rise, with over 40,000 Americans dying by suicide each year. 

Besides physical inventions like the one developed by the Pitt researchers, machine-learning tools may one day enhance psychologists' ability to identify people who are at high risk of suicide so they can receive more targeted interventions.

The Pitt engineers incorporated several design ideas from their collaborators at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Syracuse, New York, who work for the Veterans Crisis Line and have insight into effective suicide-prevention techniques for that population. 

In response to those suggestions, the inventors developed a keychain loop on the side of the device, where veterans can attach pictures of their children, spouses and friends, along with other mementos. These photos and other objects may prompt positive memories and encourage a suicidal person to reconsider his or her actions. The telephone numbers for various suicide hotlines may also be attached to the keychain, via printed cards, or inscribed on the side of the device, adding an additional layer of prevention. 

The researchers are currently negotiating with the Department of Veterans Affairs and large-scale manufacturers in hopes that the object can one day be mass-produced.

The VA already distributes free gun safety locks to many veterans to help keep their weapons locked and inaccessible to children. The inventors hope their key-locking device will one day be distributed as a companion piece so veterans will have an incentive to use the added safety measure at home.

"It's a numbers game in some regards," Cooper said. "In order for this to work, you need to have a lot of [units] out there."

The application for the patent, "Device and Method for Preventing Immediate Access to an Object," was filed Sept. 18, 2020 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It was published March 25, 2021, with the application number 17/025002. The earliest priority date was Sept. 20, 2019. The inventors of the pending patent are Sabah Ocasio and Heather Caron, Department of Veterans Affairs; and Garrett G. Grindle, Rory A. Cooper, Benjamin Gebrosky and Katherine E. Gaines, University of Pittsburgh. The assignees are the United States Government, as represented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Pittsburgh.

Parola Analytics provided technical research for this story.

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