Addressing Gun Violence

The legislature passed three laws last year to address gun violence. Act 92 enables law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident. Act 97, a “red-flag law,” allows a judge to order someone who poses an extreme risk of harm to relinquish any dangerous weapons. Act 94 expands the federal requirement for background checks to include private sales, places restrictions on the sale of firearms to those under 21, limits the transfer and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and bans the transfer and possession of bump-fire stocks.

Given the progress that the legislature made with these laws, I did not plan to press for additional firearm regulations during this biennium. That changed in December when Andrew Black committed suicide in Essex with a handgun that he had purchased four hours earlier. His parents urged legislators to pass a law to establish waiting periods for firearm purchases.

The Senate responded by passing S.169, which the House Judiciary Committee is now considering. The bill would establish a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns. It is not clear yet whether the House will pass the bill and send it to the Governor. I believe that it should, and I base my decision on four factors: the stories of Vermonters, expert testimony, data, and logic.

By stories, I mean the real-life accounts of family, friends, and neighbors lost to firearm violence. For example, Rob Black explained that his son had shown no signs of depression, and that a breakup with his girlfriend triggered the impulsive act of purchasing a handgun and, shortly after, using it to end his life. A waiting period could have interrupted this impulsive chain of events. Others testified to the traumatic effect of suicide on those who knew the victim and live with the doubt and questions as to what they could have done differently to help their friend or family member avoid that fate.

As for expert testimony, the Judiciary Committee heard from a specialist in pediatric critical care who is also a member of the Community Violence Prevention Task Force. She testified that many suicide attempts occur with little planning during a short-term crisis and that those who attempt suicide impulsively are more likely to choose a violent method. Firearms are the most lethal means of suicide, she explained, with over 90% of firearm suicide attempts resulting in death. Based on her experience and her understanding of the scientific studies, she concluded that restrictions on highly lethal means can lead to fewer suicide deaths. A waiting period for purchasing handguns is such a restriction.

A representative of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence testified that firearms are the most frequently-used weapons in domestic homicides and that over half of all homicides in Vermont are domestic violence-related. She explained that firearms do not increase victim safety and are rarely used in self-defense by victims of domestic violence – for every one time a woman used a handgun to kill someone in self-defense, 83 women were murdered with a firearm by their partner. She concluded that S.169 should reduce the likelihood of these impulsive acts of violence.

Representatives of the Attorney General’s Office and of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs testified, supporting the bill as a positive step for public safety. They also noted that having a waiting period for handgun purchases would help in combatting the drug trade. Currently, traffickers bring drugs into Vermont and exchange them for handguns, some that are purchased by Vermont residents near the time of the transaction. The waiting period would be an obstacle to such a deal.

These witnesses and others presented data from studies in support of their testimony. The American Journal of Public Health published research showing that states with waiting period laws had 51% fewer firearm suicides and a 27% lower overall suicide rate than states without such laws. When South Dakota repealed its 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases in 2009, overall suicides the following year increased by 7.6%.

In the end, however, it is the logic of a waiting period that provides the strongest rationale for the passage of S.169. Lethal harm to oneself or another can occur when an impulsive act is combined with accessibility to a lethal weapon. A waiting period provides time to cool off, to let the heat of the moment pass, to distance impulsivity from the ability to acquire a handgun.

If this bill becomes law, it will not undermine individual rights to own guns. But it will save lives.