U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)-When I was asked to set up an interview with Michael Sodini of “Walk the Talk America” I didn't know much about the organization.
Walk the Talk America's (WTTA) mission:
“is to fund research and development for outreach and promotion of mental health to reduce the misconceptions and prejudices that exist when it comes to mental illness and firearms. We believe we can be a catalyst for change by working with experts in the mental health industry.”
WTTA believes that just because that someone suffers from something like PTSD it doesn't automatically mean that they should lose their firearms rights. They think there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to firearms and mental health.
Michael Sodini believes that the firearms industry can play a significant role in changing bad laws when it comes to mental health and firearms all the while funding programs that make the difference in someone’s life. He also thinks that a partnership between mental health organizations and the firearms industry can go a long way in removing stigmas and misconceptions that plague both groups.
When I read that one of the core tenants of the organization was to remove the stigma from mental health, it spoke to me on a personal basis.
I suffer from extreme anxiety. It is not something I go out of my way to talk about, but it also isn't something I hide. I am pretty open about it to people because suffering in the dark doesn't do me or anyone else any good. After talking to Mike, I think maybe I should go out of my way to talk about it more so other people will not feel like they are suffering alone.
Explaining to someone what extreme anxiety feels like is hard. The best way I can put it is that someone is standing on your chest causing physical pain and making it a struggle to breathe all the while the same person is trapping you in a deep dark, narrow tunnel. You are unable to move with certain doom coming up fast behind you.
One of the reasons I write is to confront my anxiety. It is a kind of emersion therapy for me. It was one of the first steps I took once I accepted that anxiety was not a sign of weakness. I decided not to hide in the dark anymore, but to face my fears head-on. That is why I feel this interview with Michael Sodini is so vital to those who believe they are suffering alone.
John: What is your background?
Mike: I went to Arizona State. I graduated from college. I went to work for my family in New Jersey. I Spent like a year in the gun industry. I was always around the firearms industry, but I was never really into it just because I didn't grow up with those family members that were involved. I grew up in liberal places. I grew up in Jersey and San Francisco. I didn't go hunting, and I didn't have the access to firearms where I was.
I kind of said, “I don't know if I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
I ended up moving to New York City, and I got into the fashion industry. I did that for a few years, married a beautiful model who literally battles with mental illness right now. I'm pretty open about everything. We have a good parenting relationship and friendship, but she is showing signs of schizophrenia. We were together for 13 years. She was like my rock, but she always battled with stuff, and I didn't know what it was. She's quirky like that type of thing.
She said, “Look let's get out of the fashion industry and get normal jobs.”
I ended up moving to Ohio and working for a real estate marketing company.
Then in 2006, my family members are like, “Why don't you come back to work for us in the gun industry? We have some jobs that you can do. We love to make you a rep that can travel.”
So, I became a sales rep for Eagle Imports which is the company I am president of and own.
That's kind of my background of how I got into the firearms industry. I was much more mature. I started to enjoy the business aspect of the firearms industry and how awesome the people are like. Especially for a guy like me. I was a city boy. I'm down in Baton Rouge with Lipsey's doing duck hunts. Doing things, I was never exposed to. I kind of was embraced by a lot of people. Especially because of my family. I'm third generation.
John: What is “Walk the Talk America”?
Mike: Walk the Talk America stems from a conversation with a complete stranger when I was in New Orleans on June 15th. The reason why it sticks in my mind is because we've come so far. My national sales manager Rafael DelValle and I were waiting at this really packed restaurant, and he ended up talking to this older lady who is there by herself reading a book. We were talking because he had read the book.
We sit down to eat, and I was like, “Go back over there and get that lady. Let's not make her eat alone.”
We didn't even think about it. He goes and grabs her. She doesn't know anything about guns. She got like special needs kids. She doesn't judge people in the gun industry. She just doesn't know.
So, she's like, “How does it work when there's a school shooting?”
I said, “Well, everybody blames the gun, but it's not a gun. It's a lunatic. It's a crazy person with a gun.”
She's like, “Your industry works with the mental health side of things like the two industries work together hand-in-hand? Since you identified the problem, you would think you'd work with the people that can help solve it.”
That was the moment where I look at Rafael, and he's like, “I don't really think we really do.”
Keep in mind we are twelve vodka sodas in. We're having a good night right, and she hits us with this curveball, and I'm like, “I don't know. I'm going to look into that.”
My national sales manager being who he is says, “Yeah Mike you really should give a dollar a gun and donate it to mental health.”
So, he gave me that idea. I went home and researched it. I found out that there really isn't a lot out there. There are some programs that we have, but I stumbled upon MHA which is Mental Health America, and they had a position paper. It was Position Paper number 72.
This paper starts off with Mental Health America saying, “We don't take a stance on guns one way or the other. That's not what we're about because we don't like the stigma that's put on us every time there's a tragedy because that when you say, ‘a crazy person with a gun.’ When you say, ‘a lunatic with a gun,’ you are literally helping the stigma, and you are throwing fuel on the fire.”
So, I thought about that. I processed it and I'm like, “Oh my God! I'm guilty of that.”
Most people, they don't want to go get help.
For instance, me and you are really good friends. We are hanging out, and I say, “That person is crazy as shit. That person's this or that.”
What are you going to do?
Most likely you are going to go, “I'm not going to tell him what I go through because I don't want him to think I am crazy, but I have issues.”
So, I thought about that and I realized, “Oh my God!” and became obsessed with that idea.
I threw out this Jerry Maguire Hail Mary email. Remember in Jerry Maguire when he throws out the memo? It was funny because I started floating around the idea with a couple of my friends in the industry to see what they thought. I talked to Rob Pincus and Colion Noir and friends of Colion.
I was like, “I am thinking about starting this. Is it something that you think you could get behind if I did it?”
They were like, “Mike, if you want to run with that, it sounds great, but it sounds like you're going to be up against a tidal wave, but go ahead and do it.”
So, I wrote this email, and I sent it to Rob Pincus.
Rob said, “Mike, this is great, but you really need to be a little bit more established before you send this so let's agree to be patient and wait a little while. Wait until you get your 501c3.”
You know when they say when you go for a 501c3 it takes months? Well, it didn't for me, which is a miracle.
So, I said, “Okay.” I hang up the phone. Typical my style, I'm like, “F**k it! I'm going to send it.”
I sent it to two people. A random person at Mental Health America and I sent it to Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, who's the leading researcher in guns and violence and mental illness. He works at Duke University.
It was funny, cut to like months and months later people are like, “How did you get Jeff to respond to you?”
I didn't realize like for the mental health side of things, I think it was like getting Michael Jordan to teach me how to shoot free throws. I didn't know. That is part of the beauty of it. I call it “Forrest Gumping” it. It's when you stumble through there, and you're just confident. Both responded.
Here's the cool thing. The day that I got the letter from the United States Government saying that Walk the Talk America was official; I got an email from Mental Health America and they're like, “We have been passing around your email throughout the office, and you say some interesting things. Would you mind getting on a plane and coming out to our legislative conference in Los Angeles?”
Immediately I got right back to them, and said, “Yeah I'll be there don't worry about it. Just tell me when and where.”
I walked into that conference, and when I walked up to get my badge it just so happened the vice president of Mental Health America was sitting there, and she said: “Who are you?”
I said, “I'm the gun guy.”
They were like, “We didn't think you would show up. We are so happy to have you here. Let's talk.” That kind of started my relationship with Mental Health America.
Now let me get to the concept. What I want to do is destroy the stigma of mental health. I want to wipe it out, but I also want to fund projects that literally help people that suffer from mental illness like people in our industry that are worried about losing their rights but need help.
I fund every single program of Mental Health America and not just Mental Health America. If you have a good program, I will listen. I take it in. I see how we can help, but basically, anything that doesn't deal with losing someone's rights, I want to fund. If you look at it from 2008 to 2016, $4.8 billion has been cut from mental health facilities and mental health programs by the government. I wonder if I can make some of that up from my industry. You know, get my people behind it.
Have you ever met one person that celebrates when there's a tragedy in our industry? What does the world see of us?
You have the David Hoggs of the world who are like, “The manufacturers give the money the NRA and NRA have blood on their hands!”
I haven't met one person that's like, “High Five! there's another school shooting!”
If anything, it hurts us because we can just never stabilize. So, to me, I want to do is be able to get shit done and fund things. I want to fund things and partner with the people, and that's the kicker with MHA. They actually fight for people's gun rights that suffer from mental illness.
That is what Walk The Talk America is. We are funding these programs, and we have these badass programs. I called them “badass ninja angels.” I found these people in the community that are really doing positive outreach and casting this huge net, and what I found is they are underfunded, and nobody cares.
Nobody knows who they are so I'm like, “Let me bring what I bring to the table to these guys. Let's fund this stuff and go.”
I was trying to think of a name, and I was like, “What are we doing here?”
I want it to be something that everybody could get behind. Whether you're pro-gun, anti-gun, gay, straight, black, white, green, pro-abortion, or pro-life. I wanted a place where people can check it at the door.
People look at Walk The Talk America and say it is about guns or whatever. It's about mental health. When you get through the weeds of it, it's all about mental health. It just so happens I am a firearms guy, and all the funding has come from the firearm side. We have great partners like Armscor and Gun Vault.
It's a place for firearms industry to say, “Look we do care. Here's what we're doing. Would you like to do it with us because instead of just talking and bitching about legislation? We're actually making moves that save lives, that helps people, and we're going way back. We're going to get to these kids before they become a Cruz or a Lanza.”
That's my goal.
Someone once told me “walk the talk.” I looked, and it was available. If I could do it again, I might call it “Walk Three Feet Over There” because I am finding a lot of people that like to bullshit and are just looking for talking points
I'm like, “It's not that hard. You just do it.”
John: What is in Proposition 72?
Mike: The one that I found was from 2013. They just redid it in 2018. It is a little bit different. Same kind of message, but basically, it just says that less than 5% of people that battle mental illness will do something to harm another person. That's less than 5%. Most people would do something to themselves, or they will be harmed because they're misunderstood.
What they were saying is, “Look we don't take a stance on guns and a lot of people in our industry are going to disagree with us, but we are pleading with people to understand that our money is being taken away from us by the government, and it's not healthy for anybody.”
The majority of gun deaths are from suicide, but they gave examples. I'm a big outreach guy. I mean because I've had it in my life. If I didn't have people that I literally saved my day by coming to me and they're like, “You don't look so good. Are you okay?”
A lot of people don't do that, but I am big on that. They were talking about Jared Lautner. Remember him with Giffords? They said Pima County, which is where that happened, had just cut their outreach mental health program by something like $65,000 months before that happened.
They said, “Look we could have actually reached out to him and got to him a couple of times. Most people going to make the argument ‘well that might not have changed things.’”
But what I loved about them is they flipped the argument. “You can't say that it wouldn't have changed things.”
That was pretty powerful to me. Instead of being negative about things, be positive. What if they could have gotten to him? Maybe it would have changed the course.
That's what really spoke to me because I was like, “These guys are the experts. I am not. I am the “ungun” gun guy.”
These guys know what to do. They know how to handle things. They have these programs, but they are so scattered. I found a great program in Nevada. I found a great program in New Jersey. They all go over different things, but what I want to do is take these programs and put them on a national level. I believe these things help.
John: What are some of the misconceptions about mental health and mass shootings?
Mike: One of the biggest misconceptions is that it's common and it's not. It just seems that way because the media kind of blast it out there and makes it this thing. I will give you an example. I was talking to my daughter the other day.
She was like, “There are times when I'm at school, and I think about this stuff.”
I said, “Honey, don't think about that stuff. There are so many other things you should be thinking about beside someone coming into your school and shooting.”
We had this discussion about mental health, and I told her about less than 5% that suffer from it are a danger and how she should be more scared of heart disease. How she should be more scared of cancer.
We have someone who is battling cancer pretty bad and is probably not going to make it, but that's the thing. It's a misconception. The media blows that up. Literally looking for the next Jared Lautner or the next Adam Lanza becomes almost like trying to find a needle in a haystack because the only predictor of violence is pasted violence.
It's not a mental health diagnosis. Even people who battled schizophrenia, most of the time they don't do anything to anyone else. They end up taking their own life. The biggest misconception is people suffering from mental illness, PTSD, trauma, crisis, or anything like that can't be around firearms. That is complete bull shit.
That is one of the reasons why we are having so many people in our industry take their own lives. When I say our industry, I am kind of lumping in the military because there are a lot of people in the military that are pro-2A.
Most people don't want to come forward and tell people that they do have an issue because they don't want to lose their gun rights. What happens is it is like cancer before stage 4. You have that lump on your arm, and you go get it checked out. When do you usually go get it checked out? When it is really big, and you're starting to have problems? That's when you hit stage 4.
The president of the company before me, who was also a dear friend of mine, took his own life. It was one of those things where I would never have guessed it. We had discussions about suicide where he said it was a coward's way out.
I had an old girlfriend Which he knew who took her own life, and we had discussions about suicide. For me, when I look at the big picture, I look at it like he never said anything. I wonder how much stigma that we created in the fear of losing his gun rights and his job since he was the president of a gun company. I wonder if that played on to it. That's what the misconception is.
Crazy with a gun is not correct. It is not right. A lot of us have mental health issues. Like you fight in the open.
Imagine if someone said, “He shouldn't be around firearms.”
You would be, “Get the f**k out of here!”
John: How do we fight stigma in the firearms industry?
Mike: That is one of the reasons why I wanted to create Walk The Talk. I grew up with a single mom in San Francisco. I've been able to play with other’s ideas gracefully all my life because my norms were not the norms. I grew up around all kinds of people from all walks of life.
Everyone always laughs at this, but it's true. I was raised and taught how to be a man by homosexual men. When I was little, I used to throw around the f-word a lot.
One day my mom pulled me aside, and she's like, “You say that word, and I don't think you know what that means.”
To me, it meant like a weak person.
She was like, “George is gay. Frank is gay.”
I started crying. I was like, “No they're not!”
If you saw them, they looked like George Michael from the Wham video. Like Elton John. I'm sitting there fighting like no they're not because to me it didn't mean that, but it was one of the greatest things my mother ever did because I learned that the rest of the world cares even though you don't. You got to understand that.
For me, how we get through to them is just how I have done it. I'm not sitting here trying to brag about it, but I knew when they told me to come to that conference I could hear them say stuff to me, and that I could stay in the pocket for it.
You probably have the same conversation I do about semi-automatic vs. automatic. What do you do when people tell you that you're wrong?
Do you say, “I'm out?”
Do you say, “Forget it! I can't talk to these people. I'm not going to waste my time.”
I have an amazing ability to just sit there and discuss it, but I also don't offend people. I don't name call.
I do a lot of this: “I'll give you a million-to-one odds. So, for every dollar, you bet I'll give you a million. You will own me, my house, and everything if you're right.”
Most of the time that helps people get through stuff.
They are like, “All right show me what you're talking about.”
I applied the same thing to the mental health side of things or let's say the liberal side. Because quite honestly, there are so many views I have that fall under the liberal track that I could fit myself into being a libertarian, but I don't know if there's a home for me with identity politics. I really don't like to play identity politics because I think that's what's killing us.
For me to get them to come off where they're coming from is just being patient and having this discussion with no prejudice. Understanding that they do not understand, and they get their news from an echo chamber just like some of our people do. If you only get your news from an echo chamber, from those people that make you feel safe and you trust, and they're wrong of course, you're going about think that.
I ended up spending three days with Debbie, the vice president of the MHA, at an event in Denver that I was speaking at. That's what builds trust with the so-called “other side.”
John: How can people Help WTTA?
Mike: You can go to the website or follow us on our social media platforms. Obviously, Money Talks. I am paying for a lot of programs that actually help the community and help people battle mental illness.
For example, in the Clark County School District, I paid for these things called SOS kits. Mental illness is very broad. It's everything from anxiety to, believe it or not, arachnophobia. There are 200 classifications of mental illness. With these kits do is help teachers see things and work around things.
You fight in the open. Take for example the things that you battle. Imagine how a teacher might perceive you. They might think that you don't care.
Teachers are the people that spend the most time with our kids, and these kits help them recognize and understand the kids. I think this will lead to having a bunch of kids that come up healthier than the kids we have now.
One of the other things that we are doing that to really cool is we have these bands that have a link to our site where you can take a screening. Mental Health America has the screening on their site that are anonymous and free, and those are what we use.
Get a free mental health screening: https://walkthetalkamerica.org/screening-tools/
About John Crump
John is a NRA instructor and a constitutional activist. He is the former CEO of Veritas Firearms, LLC and is the co-host of The Patriot News Podcast which can be found at www.blogtalkradio.com/patriotnews. John has written extensively on the patriot movement including 3%'ers, Oath Keepers, and Militias. In addition to the Patriot movement, John has written about firearms, interviewed people of all walks of life, and on the Constitution. John lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and sons and is currently working on a book on leftist deplatforming methods and can be followed on Twitter at @crumpyss, on Facebook at realjohncrump, or at www.crumpy.com.