Counterpoint Summer 2019 • News • Page 1
MONTPELIER – The legislature passed a bill in May that requires a 24-hour waiting period for purchase of a handgun after a debate that included questions about whether there was a right to suicide, as well as the degree to which suicide is preventable.
The suicide death of a 23-year-old Essex man in December created momentum for the new law after his parents asked in his obituary that readers write to their legislators with the message, “In honor of Andrew R. Black, we ask that you work for legislation that imposes a reasonable waiting period between firearm purchase and possession to provide a cooling off period to guard against impulsive acts of violence.”
Governor Phil Scott vetoed the bill in June, saying that the state should “prioritize strategies
that address the underlying causes of violence and suicide” and asking the legislature to work with him “to strengthen our mental health system.” (As of the Counterpoint press date, he had not indicated whether he would sign the bill into law; his veto was announced before the online edition was revised and posted.)
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician from the University of Vermont Medical
Center, told legislators that data show that in 2017, Vermont’s firearm suicide rate was 1.5 times higher than the national firearm suicide rate and nearly three times higher than that of other Northeastern states.
“Since 2000, nearly 1,000 Vermont residents have died by gun suicide, including more than 100 people under age 25,” she said. Bell also cited data that showed that suicide attempts using a gun were overwhelmingly more likely to result in death than other means.
“The ‘inevitability myth’ that says a person with suicidal ideations will just find a way is
particularly damaging,” Bell testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Ninety percent of
those who survive near-lethal suicide attempts do not go on later to die by suicide.”
Sen. Joe Benning was quoted in news reports as saying that the Essex death was tragic but he was not convinced that a waiting period would have saved Black. He and others raised concerns about whether the constitutional protections of the right to self defense outweighed other considerations.
During the Senate committee debate, several senators questioned “whether it’s the
responsibility of state government to intervene if a person decides to end their own life,” according to a report in Seven Days. “I know this may sound, at first blush, as if it’s coming out of left field, but the fundamental right of an individual to control their bodies and make
decisions about their bodies is something I’m very attuned to,” Benning was quoted as saying.
“And as crazy as this may sound, if I decide to commit suicide, what right does the state of Vermont have to try to intercede because somebody around this table feels, ‘Well, that’s
Benning also pointed out that it’s unknown how many suicides-by-firearm in Vermont took
place within 24 hours of the gun’s purchase, the report said. “We have a speculative bill that might reduce suicides, and that’s the hope,” Benning said. Similar concerns were raised in discussion in the House.
Rep. Patrick Brennan, a gun rights advocate, said he might have been inclined to vote for a bill that could save lives but hadn’t seen any evidence that a firearm waiting period would. “I think it’s based on emotion,” he said. “It’s another little chip in gun rights.”
The House Judiciary Committee member who presented the bill, Rep. Martin LaLonde,
said Vermont’s entire medical community, apart from some individual physicians, believed that there was evidence that waiting periods save lives.
He said that lack of data was based on efforts by the National Rifle Association to block gun violence research, but that logic pointed to a positive impact by causing a delay because suicide was often a very impulsive act.
The President of the Vermont Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs said in testimony that the group saw “a problem in attempting to achieve a balance between an individual’s constitutional right of self-defense versus the establishment of a waiting period that might delay a person from committing suicide.”
“Even if there is only one victim that wishes to purchase the means to defend themselves: Is
it reasonable, fair and constitutional to subject that victim to any waiting period, when any delay might well make the difference between saving their own life or preventing injury?
“How do we balance the rights of a person who wishes to preserve their life versus a person who is intent on ending theirs?” he asked.
Others suggested that mental health intervention would be a better approach for
suicide prevention, citing data that risk factors for suicide include depression and other mental health diagnoses or a substance-abuse disorder, often in combination with a mental disorder.
“More than 90% of people who die by suicide have these risk factors,” said William Moore of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, another gun rights group. A witness for Gun Sense Vermont, a lobbying group for gun restrictions, testified that waiting periods help reduce the occurrence of suicides as well as other impulsive acts of violence.
Clai Lasher-Sommers said that when compared to other means of attempting suicide,
guns are by far the most lethal. “The vast majority of people who attempt suicide survive – unless they use a gun,” she said. Bell said less than 5% of non-firearm suicide
attempts result in death, whereas approximately 85% of gun suicide attempts end in death.
“Waiting periods may help prevent firearm suicides by delaying access to firearms,” Lasher- Sommers told the legislature. “In delaying immediate access to a firearm,
waiting periods insert a buffer between impulse and action and are essential in providing that time. Time for someone to rethink what they are about to do. Time for them to reach out to someone and get help.”