MONTPELIER — Gun law reform advocates and medical experts teamed up Wednesday in support of legislation that could reduce the high rate of gunshot suicides in Vermont.
At a press conference and panel discussion at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, panelists stressed that access to guns greatly increased the risk of death in suicide attempts. The panelists urged lawmakers to consider waiting periods for gun buyers and a law securing firearms from children.
“When there’s immediate access to guns, the lethality of that mode ending one’s life is fast and it’s complete,” said Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of Gun Sense Vermont. “The power that a weapon carries will kill you immediately.”
Lasher-Sommers, who advocated for new gun laws passed by the governor last year after the uncovering of an alleged plot by former student Jack Sawyer to carry out a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School, said preventing access to guns was key to lowering suicide attempts.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map of states showed that Vermont has an average of between 3 to 6.3 deaths by gun per 100,000 of population among youth, similar to the high rate in nine midwestern states and Alaska, and the highest among New England states.
Panel moderator David Gram — a former Vermont Associated Press reporter — noted that the rate of suicide deaths in Vermont is rising, with Vermonters dying at a rate 35 percent higher than the national average. Firearms account for only 5 percent of suicide attempts but are responsible for 50 percent of suicide deaths because of their lethality, he said.
The round table discussion was hosted by the organization Giffords, named for Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who suffered a brain injury when she was shot while meeting with constituents in Tucson in 2011 and started a national campaign to enact new gun safety laws. The visit by the organization coincided with new gun bills in the Legislature: H.159 calling for a three-day waiting period after buying a weapon before receiving it, and S.22 seeking child access prevention to firearms with a law to keep firearms locked away.
Factors identified by panelists that made Vermonters vulnerable to gunshot suicide included high gun ownership in the state, serious financial problems, rural isolation, mental illness, substance abuse and chronic disease.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center, noted that suicide attempts are often impulsive and involve a violent method, such as a gun. Twenty-four percent of adolescent and young adult survivors say that they acted within five minutes of contemplating suicide, and another 50 percent said they acted within an hour or two, she said.
While Vermont has a higher-than-average youth suicide death rate, it had a lower-than-average prevalence rate of youth reporting severe depressive symptoms, suicidal planning and previous suicide attempts, Bell added.
As a doctor, Bell said it was one of her most difficult duties to inform a parent their child committed suicide or would not survive a suicide attempt, and death is much more likely if it involves a firearm compared with other methods, such as ingesting poison or hanging. It was every parent’s worst nightmare to learn that their child had attempted or died from suicide, she added.
She said that suicide survivors invariably said they acted impulsively, but were also much less likely to die by suicide later on in life.
“Mostly, they’re relieved, and frankly embarrassed, and just keep saying, ‘I can’t believe I did this, I was just so upset at the time,’” she said.
Alison Krompf, senior policy adviser at Vermont Department of Mental Health, and Hannah Shearer, a staff attorney at Giffords Law Center, also contributed to the panel.
Other discussions included looking for warning signs of suicidality, reaching out to potential victims who might be isolated and seeking help from suicide prevention services in the state.
For more information, visit the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center at www.vtspc.org.