Gunshots Project update: Gun deaths rose again in 2022, though firearm-related suicides dropped
Vermont documented a record number of gunshot fatalities in 2022, even though firearms-related suicides declined for the first time in four years. A total of 92 Vermonters died of gunshots, continuing a years-long upward trend: 68 were by suicide, 21 by homicide, and three were accidental or could not be determined.
But despite the grim news, experts across the state expressed hope that a variety of changes over the past year and a half may reduce gun deaths — eventually.
Vermont Public has been analyzing gunshot fatalities for every year since 2011. In that time, the number of fatalities has generally risen, and suicides have consistently represented the bulk of the deaths. While that was still true in 2022, homicides made up a larger portion of the total for the first time since 2019.
Vermont’s suicide rate remains higher than the national average, which itself reached a record high in 2022. A total of 73% of gun deaths in Vermont were ruled as suicides, while 22% were homicides. Nationwide, suicides accounted for 56% of gun deaths, while homicides accounted for 41% in 2022, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That data from the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health shows:
- Firearm suicides decreased by 9%, from 75 in 2021 to 68 in 2022. Gunshots accounted for 54% of suicide deaths in Vermont last year.
- Firearm homicides increased from 9 in 2021 to 21 in 2022. Gunshots accounted for 80% of homicides.
- 29% of suicide victims were current or former members of the military.
- One homicide involved law enforcement.
Compared to neighboring states, Vermont’s firearm death rate is higher than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but comparable to New Hampshire and Maine.
The rise in gunshot homicides in Vermont mirrors a national trend of increasing homicides beginning in 2019, plus a rise in opioid overdoses in Vermont — which increased from 158 in 2020 to 217 in 2021 and 243 in 2022. That's according to Capt. Shawn Loan, Special Investigations Commander for Vermont State Police.
“When you look at the homicides we used to experience in Vermont, you would see this kind of mix of crimes of passion, domestic violence, you know; neighbor-on-neighbor type situations,” Loan said. “What we saw in the increase in 2022 was people that were involved in the drug trade. I'm not saying these are drug-related homicides, but many of the people that are involved in these homicides are involved in the drug trade.”
Vermont is likely to see another increase in homicides in 2023: there have already been 19 criminal gunfire homicides as of November this year, Loan said.
Stephanie Busch, injury prevention program manager at the Health Department, said a number of policy changes in the past year may help to bring Vermont's gunfire death rate down in the future.
“With any kind of legislation, it takes time for it to go into effect, and then also for more people to understand and know about” Busch said. “And what I would say is, it’s still very early on after that implementation, and so, as far as our numbers and whatnot, we haven’t seen any changes yet.”
A new bill
In the period since last year’s Vermont Public Gunshots update, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill imposing penalties on people who keep firearms where they can be accessed by children or other people prohibited from owning firearms. The legislation also requires 72-hour waiting periods following purchase, and allows family and household members to petition for extreme risk protection orders, which seek to prevent at-risk people from purchasing firearms.
These measures took effect July 1, 2023.
Earlier this month, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs filed a lawsuit against the 72-hour waiting period and a 2018 ban on high-capacity magazines. That's according to reporting by VTDigger.
Rep. Alyssa Black, who has championed gun legislation following the 2018 suicide death of her son, said she was happy with the 72-hour waiting period. But Black said she would like to see the safe storage provision — which only penalizes gun owners if the weapon is used in a crime or “displayed in a threatening manner” — strengthened.
“I really think we should make the expectation that if you have an unsecured firearm that is accessed by a child, you are liable,” Black said. “I think it needs to be stronger.”
For the upcoming legislative session, though, her focus will be on ensuring people are aware of the new law and of the importance of keeping guns locked up in general.
“If people don’t know about it, what good is it?” Black said.
'Time and space'
Stephanie Busch, the injury prevention program manager for the Health Department, says much of her work involves making data on suicides more widely available to partners and the public. In September, the Health Department released its first edition of the Suicide Data Linkage Project, a report cataloguing how people who have died from suicide interacted with state agencies and other organizations — the purpose is to try to determine where people are falling through these systems. The department also released a Suicide Surveillance Dashboard to make data on suicides more accessible to community partners.
According to Busch, the state has worked to increase the availability of gun locks, too. In the past, law enforcement agencies were the primary distributors of free gun locks. Now, there arefree cable lock distribution centersthroughout the state, including libraries.
Every gun lock distributor is listed on GunSafeVT.org, a collaboration between the Health Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont, UVM Medical Center, and a number of other state agencies to make information on gun safety centralized and accessible.
While 44% of Vermont households stored at least one firearm at home in 2020, only 49% of those households keep guns both locked and unloaded. Research has shown locking firearms, storing them unloaded and locking up ammunition separately help reduce the likelihood of gun injuries in homes with children.
Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, said families often want to temporarily remove firearms from their home, but have struggled to find a place to store them.
“They recognize that it’s not safe for a family member or for themselves to have firearms in the home,” Bell said. “In the past, there haven’t been many resources for families to temporarily, voluntarily store their firearms outside the home.”
Earlier this year, the state updated its Firearms Storage Programto allow people to voluntarily store their guns at select gun stores. Eight stores across the state offer secure storage, all listed on GunSafeVT.org.
Promoting the use of gun locks and secure storage are part of a broader approach to preventing gun suicides by "putting time and space between a firearm and someone who might be in crisis,” Busch said.
Experts are hopeful that in the coming years, these safety measures could begin to reverse Vermont’s years-long rise in gun deaths.
“Those opportunities that did not exist a year ago, now exist,” Bell said. “What we do now is really make sure the public knows about [them].”
Here are some resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:
- National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call 988 or text 988
- Click here for an online chat with the the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: call 1-800-273-8255, press 1
- LGTBQ crisis line: call 1-866-488-7386 or text 678678
- Crisis Text Line: text "VT" to 741-741
- Gun locks, firearm storage and information on Extreme Risk Protection Orders: GunSafeVT.org
- Resources with the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.