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Gunshots project update: A record number of Vermonters died from guns in 2021. The vast majority were suicides.

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Taylor Dobbs, Emily Alfin Johnson
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VPR
Over the past decade, there have been 801 gun deaths in Vermont, and 88% of those deaths were suicides. The vast majority of people who killed themselves were men and a quarter of suicides were among people who had served in the U.S armed forces.

Twelve-year-old Ryan Fortin liked great haircuts and a good pair of sneakers. He played rec basketball and earned a purple belt in karate. He was a loyal friend and an attentive older brother to his five siblings.

“He would get up in the morning and make them waffles in the toaster, the frozen waffles,” said Emily Hackett, his mom. “He just was a really great person who just had an old soul; he felt deeply.”

Ryan had a great sense of humor too. In a picture from a trip to Washington D.C., Ryan is standing so it looks like he’s holding up the White House.

“He just thought it was so funny that he could, like, hold up the White House,” Hackett said.

On Sept. 24, 2020, Ryan died by suicide using a firearm. He’s one of the 233 gun deaths recorded in Vermont over the past three years. The majority of those deaths were suicides – a trend that has remained steady for at least a decade, according to a Vermont Public anaylsis.

Data show 2021 was an especially deadly year. More Vermonters died from gunshot wounds in 2021 than any other year in the last decade.

Vermont’s suicide rate is higher than the national rate.

The data

In 2017, Vermont Public published an investigation into gun deaths in the state. Reporters and volunteers compiled a database of gun fatalities using death certificates. The database has been updated in the years since the series was first published.

Over the past decade, there have been 801 gun deaths in Vermont, and 88% of those deaths were suicides. The vast majority of people who killed themselves were men and a quarter of the suicides were among people who had served in the U.S armed forces.

Key takeaways from the 2019 to 2021 data include:

  • More Vermonters died from gunshot wounds in 2021 than any other year in the last decade. The vast majority were suicide.
  • There were 75 suicides by firearm in 2021, the highest number in the last decade.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the men who died from gunshots wounds died by suicide. 
  • Five of the homicides between 2019 and 2021 involved law enforcement.
  • There was one accidental death and one fatality where the manner of death could not be determined in 2021.
  • Fifty-four deaths were among people who had been in the U.S armed forces. Ninety percent of those fatalities were suicides.

You can read past stories in our Gunshots Series here.

Firearms are used in more than half of all suicides in Vermont, according to state health department.

When someone attempts suicide with a gun the risk of death is much greater than with other methods, which is why public health agencies, including the Vermont Health Department advise gun owners to keep guns and ammunition locked up separately.

“Based off of some research, about a quarter of suicide attempts, it's less than five minutes between the initial thought and action,” said Stephanie Busch, injury prevention manager at the Vermont Department of Health. “And so really highlighting the importance of putting time and space between that highly lethal method is important.”

Suicide prevention

Experts say to reduce suicide rates in Vermont more community education about mental health is needed. Especially since data shows suicide rates in Vermont are higher in more rural counties.

“Some of the work that we are really ramping up is around recognizing any person, any community member should be able to recognize when someone might be struggling,” Busch said. “[And] how to have a conversation non-judgmentally, working to reduce stigma, and then helping them connect with whatever kind of services or help that they might need.”

Busch said warning signs of someone struggling include talking about being a burden to others, withdrawing from other people and mood swings.

Another step Vermont could take is to create free storage sites where people can voluntarily — and temporarily — store firearms if they or someone in their home is at higher risk for suicide, said Dr. Rebecca Bell, who works in the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.

“Access to the firearm plays a big part, it's the most important determine determiner of the outcome of suicide attempts,” Bell said.

Bell said she’s worked to develop training to teach physicians how to talk to families about safe firearm storage.

“Talking about safe storage, and that the firearms need to be unloaded, locked up with the ammunition locked up and stored separately, is something that we haven't done a good job doing as physicians,” she said. “And part of that is because we don't have the training, we don't have the confidence, we might worry about alienating families.”

The battle over waiting periods

Bell also thinks waiting periods for firearm purchases would help reduce gun suicides in Vermont.

That’s a measure that Rep. Alyssa Black also supports. In 2018, Black’s 23-year-old son Andrew killed himself with a gun he’d bought a few hours before his death.

“He was moving to Waterbury … and he had been saving for a couple of months, his first and last and security deposit,” Black said. “He had taken that and bought this brand new handgun just hours before he had killed himself. It was just this sense of ‘how does that even happen?’”

In Andrew’s obituary, which drew widespread media attention, Black called on lawmakers to enact a waiting period for gun purchases. Black, who wasn’t in the Legislature at the time, testified in support of the bill.

The Vermont Legislature passed the measure in 2019, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

When he vetoed S.169, the waiting-period legislation, Scott pointed to a series of gun control measures he’d signed into law the previous year, which included universal background checks, raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm and allowing courts to take guns away from people who may harm themselves or others.

"With these measures in place, we must now prioritize strategies that address the underlying causes of violence and suicide. I do not believe S.169 addresses these areas,” Scott said in his veto message.

Scott has signed off on some new gun safety measures since 2019. The governor signed a bill this year that bans guns from hospitals, extends the maximum waiting period for background checks and gives courts more authority to seize weapons from people accused of domestic abuse. The law also allows healthcare providers to share information with law enforcement if they believe their patient is at risk of hurting themselves or others with a firearm. Those measures went into effect on July 1.

Emily Hackett, whose son Ryan died in 2020, plans to advocate for more gun safety measures in Vermont, including a law requiring safe storage of firearms.

“Suicide can be very impulsive and the means matter,” she said. “If the moment was interrupted, he might still be here.”

Here are some resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is a reporter based in Burlington and covers a variety of issues, including courts, law enforcement and housing.
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