WESTMINSTER — In 2018, the president at the time was perpetuating stigma and causing fear, blaming mass shootings on people with mental health challenges.
At the time, I was a teacher and mental health advocate, and I asked to speak at Putney's March for our Lives rally.
I addressed the crowd of 400 Vermonters, speaking about an issue close to my heart.
In my talk - “Guns and Mental Illness: It's Not What You Think” - I raised concerns about the extraordinarily high rates of people taking their own lives with guns in Vermont. That year, suicide accounted for 89% of gun deaths. That statistic is now slightly higher.
I tried to help people understand that most individuals living with a mental illness are more likely to take their own lives, or to be the victims of violence, than they are to ever harm another person with a gun.
I raised the hope that the Legislature would consider prevention policies: like requiring a waiting period before purchasing a gun, and like requiring lockboxes for safe storage when a gun is kept at home, to keep it away from children and others who might be at risk.
* * *
This week, House Bill H.230 - “An act relating to implementing mechanisms to reduce suicide” - is coming to the floor in the Vermont House of Representatives. The bill would require lockboxes for safe storage and adds a 72-hour wait limit after completion of a background check to purchasing a gun.
Quick access to guns combined with depression and other forms of mental illness can and does result in tragedy.
I lost my great-grandmother to suicide by gun before I ever had a chance to meet her.
The bill's lead sponsor - my colleague, Rep. Alyssa Black of Essex Junction - lost her son to death by suicide with a gun in December of 2018 a few hours after he bought the weapon that ended his life.
The votes we will cast in the House are coming too late to save Andrew Black, but the proposed law will save the lives of others.
* * *
Limiting access to guns at times when someone may be vulnerable to self harm could save many Vermonters.
Vermont veterans have a substantially higher rate of suicide than the general population. In our state, LGBTQ+ youth and adults, people of color, and men are also at a higher risk for suicide than the population as a whole.
In general, most people who attempt suicide do not do so multiple times; if people attempt to end their lives with a gun, the lethality rate is high. Limiting access to guns at times when someone may be vulnerable to self harm could save many Vermonters.
I didn't know when I urged legislation to promote safety and decrease gun deaths five years ago that in 2023 I would be one of the 150 House members casting a vote about the issue. This may be the most important vote I cast this year.
It's time for change, Vermont.