One day, while I was at dinner in New Orleans, LA with my colleague, Rafael DelValle, we wound up inviting a “random” stranger to come sit at our table. This person was a woman who wasn’t into guns (but wasn’t against them, either) asked us “what happens when there is a school shooting?”
We explained to her that one side blames the gun, the other side blames mental health, and because of this, unfortunately nothing ever gets resolved. She then replied, “well how do you as an industry work with Mental Health if you have identified the problem? It would make sense that the two industries work hand and hand.”
I remember Rafael turning to me and saying “we really should be at least donating a portion of what we sell to the cause”, and at that moment a light bulb went off in my head.
I became consumed with the idea.
“Why haven’t we done more to help” I thought. I know so many good people in this industry and contrary to popular belief, they do care when there is a tragedy. I started wondering why are we so quick to dismiss it as mental health and not do anything if our hearts are broken too?
Then I thought about how a lot of people in my industry are usually too busy trying to do damage control from the backlash we continuously receive after theses traumatic events, while also grieving in their own way.
Dealing with trauma and being blamed by half of the country is not an easy task and as humans it’s so easy to fall back to who and what you are comfortable with…hence the cycle of “choosing sides”.
When I returned to my home in Las Vegas, NV, I began spending countless hours researching Mental Health and violence…at times it would be for days straight, and often felt like I was studying for a new degree! I became consumed with understanding why I was constantly hearing that this country is de-funding and moving farther away from making mental health a priority.
As someone who has experienced several life-changing events due to friends, and family members who have struggled with mental illness, the trauma surrounding this issue is something that I hold empathy for, but hadn’t previously investigated.
When I came across Proposition Paper 72 by Mental Health America (MHA), the longest running mental health organization in the country, what I read gave me chills because not only did they take a neutral stance on guns, but I learned that only 5% of people that battle with mental health are actually violent to others.
Then came the the knock out punch…the stigma that we put on mental health is just as bad as the one put on the firearm industry!
Think about it.
If you keep saying it’s “another crazy person with a gun”, what does that do?
It creates a stigma that makes people scared or ashamed to talk about their own battles, which causes people to never seek help.
What do we know?
Well, the truth of the matter is, if you don’t catch something early it ends up growing and getting worse until it hits an all-time high. Let something go untreated, and most likely others will never get the opportunity to help, because the core problem only came out in a tragic event.
I had never framed it up that way.
I realized that we are two sides of the same coin, two industries running parallel to each other, but not looking at one another.
I must have read their position paper twenty times just that one day.
I highlighted every sentence that mentioned anything to do with outreach and what could have been done if only funding and education hadn’t been cut on the subject. I realized that these are the things that my industry could help with!
If the mental health side would be willing to work with us (not an easy thing to do in today’s identity politics obsessed world), and if I could get through to them, together we could start making a massive difference and saving lives…proactively, not retroactively.
I thought about schools and the calls to action that can keep kids safe.
I thought about the funds that can be raised to provide things like better security and safer doors and windows without changing the aesthetics of the school. After all, the firearms industry already has connections to these types of companies that have this.
I thought “I want to work with people that have the same goals that I do…..let’s help our underserved, and protect our children.”
People and companies that are tired of the identity politics and the “name calling” need a place to just get something done.
No more talking about it, just action.
While legislators are out there battling it out to make laws, let’s do the things that can make this country a better place. Let’s help people, and communicate with compassion.
I couldn’t care less if you are black, white, green, gay, straight, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-second amendment or maybe just don’t like guns…it doesn’t matter.
We all battling something internally, and mental illness is something that affects us all. Many people we know and are close to, are one degree away from it, whether it’s with a family member, friend, partner, or colleague.
Let’s focus on what we can do together and help.
We don’t have to agree on anything except that.
I called my organization Walk the Talk America for that very reason.
I was anxious to get started, but needed the support of some of my closest peers. I called close friends (some of them very influential in my industry) and ran the idea by them, and the response was amazing!
It was important for me to see if they felt the same thing I did after I explained what I like to call the “A-Ha” moment that started back with at that dinner table in New Orleans with Rafael, and snowballed after I read the position paper by Mental Health America.
I got what I wanted – the “I’m in, how can I help” response.
Next up was what I thought would be the hard part, reaching out to Mental Health America and getting them to see my vision. I started writing what I like to call my “Jerry McGuire-Hail-Mary memo email” where I laid my cards out on the table.
I knew I had to send it to my a couple of people for review before I sent it out to the leaders in mental health and one of the leading researchers in the the mental health and violence.
I confided in Rob Pincus, a dear friend and well know firearm instructor in the industry, who wanted to be involved with WTTA. He told me the letter was great, but to wait to send it, because, after all, we didn’t even have the OK on the application that was filed from the US government that we qualified as a 501-C-3, or a logo, or a website. We agreed to wait about a month so we could find strategic partners that could help us accomplish these tasks.
I hung up the phone and ended up doing what I often do when I’m passionate about something.
Throwing the plan right out the window and hitting send on the email the very next day. I figured if my email didn’t elicit a response, I could always circle back when I was more established.
Date: July 18, 2018 at 2:56:28 PM EDT
Subject: Interested in helping
My name is Michael Sodini and I am the founder of a non-profit organization that intends to correct misconceptions about the roles that both the mental health system and firearms play in problems of gun violence, negligence and suicide. I am an actionable person and I want to help, but I know I can’t possibly know everything regarding all aspects of this tense conversation. Could you and your organization provide some guidance, even collaboration?
I was fascinated and moved to action by your Position Statement (#72: Violence: Community Mental Health Response) that I came across from MHA. It spoke to me, and it brought some clarity to my mind. I may be in a unique position to assist, and to empower a tipping point in your movement. The nonprofit I recently started is called walkthetalkamerica.org.
I want to make a difference. I am prepared to help fund research and development for preventative services, with the close guidance of mental health experts. I live with my wife and two preteen daughters in Las Vegas, NV. I also own and run a highly successful, 30 year old firearms business out of New Jersey. I have many close contacts in the industry, and have established commitments from several colleagues. We, as an industry, are concerned about mental health in America, and believe it is time to bring together professionals and academics from ALL sides to combat this problem. Many of us have felt that “somebody” or “some organization” would miraculously show up, make a change, fix everything. We have decided to be the change we wish to see. We want to help breakdown unfounded stigmas, debunk erroneous claims, and really start addressing and correcting the problem. We don’t want to sit on the sidelines, just hoping for a solution. We want to be part of the solution. I founded WalktheTalkAmerica.org to facilitate this. It’s an organization I believe everyone, no matter their political leanings, can get behind. It can bring us together, and move us all forward.
Professionals in the mental health community are often attacked or ignored in the same way that professionals and educators from the firearms industry are by the media or the talking heads. Of course, I am fully aware that the gun industry as a whole, has not done much to further the cause in finding real solutions on the mental health front. My colleagues and I are committing our time, connections, experience, funding and our reputations to developing solutions outside of political or business agendas. I’m known by many in the gun industry as the most “un-gun gun guy” they know. It’s true. Further, mental health seems to touch all of us at some point, be it a family member, a colleague, or our aging parents. I have experienced this in my immediate family and I cannot, in good conscience, sit back and watch both sides struggle to find solutions without exploring the potential benefits of cooperation. I have to get involved.
I believe, with help from the right team we can bring about what we all need to make real positive change. I believe these are the antidotes to open communication, compassion, action, and education. Naturally, we are all aware that an organization like this most be properly funded and my colleagues have generously committed to joining me in funding this cause.
Can we arrange a phone conversation? I would love to tell you what walkthetalkamerica.org is all about and get some guidance and feedback. Even if you can’t help me, maybe you can point me in the right direction. My schedule is flexible and I am glad to make time for regular calls to make a difference.
I am grateful for your time and for your real work.
I had always heard the expression “if you go, go big” and I had done that with one click.
I sent one email to America Paredes of MHA, and then another to Dr. Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University (one of the leading researchers of violence and mental illness).
Since I had to wait for a response, I figured now would be a good time to get moving on building our board of directors and finding someone who could build WTTA a website. The stars just happened to align in such a way, that I was introduced to Travis Horton from Brand Avalanche who loved what we were doing and wanted to support our cause, by donating the building (and hosting) of the site. I found a logo designer and a legal team that threw in their services to help launch the concept. I started reaching out to some of my friends who own companies in the industry and explained the concept, and the response and commitments were amazing.
Then came one of the best days of my life…
The day I got confirmation of my 501-C-3 status from the government, and as I was discussing and celebrating this with Maria Kernasovic, one of the first people who believed in WTTA and is also a board member, an email came through from America at MHA.
From: America Paredes
Date: Friday, July 20, 2018
Subject: Interested in helping
To: Michael Sodini <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Hi Michael –
Thanks for reaching out and for your willingness to address these issues. It would be great to connect and learn more about you and your work. As a national organization, we are committed to finding workable solutions to the wide range of factors that impact these particular areas.
My advocacy and policy team colleagues are excited at the notion of chatting with you and figuring out ways in which we can collaborate.
I don’t know if it is feasible for you, but a couple of us will be out in Los Angeles at the end of July for a Regional Policy meeting. If you are able to attend, it would be a great way to actually meet in person and to introduce you to some of our policy and advocacy team. More information about the event is available here: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/events/los-angeles-regional-policy-meeting.
Please let me know if you are able to participate. If not, we can always jump on a call.
Have a great weekend!
Now I don’t care if you are religious, agnostic, spiritual or just believe in Karma – it’s hard to deny that wasn’t a sign.
One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain and it goes…
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Second to the birth dates of my two daughters, July 20th , 2018 was that day.
Maria and I immediately booked a flight to Los Angeles, CA to attend MHA’s conference. This was a huge opportunity for us as we knew MHA was giving us an opportunity to be heard, and this was a huge step forward from an organization that has been fighting the stigma some of my very own peers have helped perpetuate. I even got a response for Dr. Swanson and he was kind enough to give me an hour and a half of his time to have a conversation, which reaffirmed my feeling that WTTA could make a difference. It’s not everyday you get to talk to an industry leader.
The morning of August 1st, Maria and I were so anxious to meet some of the key players, we were literally the first people to show up at the conference. As we walked up, we introduced ourselves to a woman named Debbie Plotnick, who just happened to be the Vice President of MHA (another sign if you ask me).
We told her who we were and we were greeted with open arms.
We spent the day listening to legislators talk about their initiatives to increase federal funding and raise awareness to the many issues the mental health industry faces. Many of these speakers shared their personal stories of both victories and losses, which was all very humbling for me.
What that conference did was show me that WTTA is on the right path and MHA was the right organization to align with for the future.
I left Los Angeles and made it my mission to drive forward. I finalized my board of directors and scheduled a meeting with Debbie out in Denver to find out what policies and procedures we could come together on to make change.
I got the opportunity to have an honest conversation about the great people in my industry that want to be on the frontline, while also dialoguing about the fact that we do not want be involved in any legislation, only polices that involve education, safety and outreach.
Debbie and I came to the mutual understanding (and agreement) to work together to abolish the stigma that is put on people who battle mental illness by changing the language (and culture) that many people in my industry have been conditioned to use, by offering a new paradigm of heart-to-heart awareness.
We agreed to standby and support each other throughout the entire partnership…a partnership that was the last piece of the puzzle to get moving on opening minds, and saving lives.
So that’s the first chapter of the WTTA story and that’s where you come in to help me write the rest of it.
I need your help and support with WTTA. It’s going to take a lot of funding to accomplish our goals in education, safety and especially outreach. I am putting my money where my mouth is, and will be the first firearm company to donate a dollar for every gun that is sold from Eagle Imports.
I also have support from all of my manufacturers.
Every time you purchase a Bersa, Grand Power, Metro Arms, or Avidity Arms product, you are supporting the cause.
I understand that not everyone has money to donate, but every dollar counts.
If you can’t contribute cash, donate a resource or just help promote the organization through your social media. Know somebody that can help the WTTA? Reach out to them.
Every little bit helps and will be appreciated.
Don’t ever say “I’m just one person, what can I do?” .
Support Walk the Talk America and you will already have done plenty.
Our future plans and policies are not only going to change the current culture, and evolve awareness, but will also save precious lives.
Let’s work together to give the world a little more love!
Walking the talk together,