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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Right To Self-Defense Versus Suicide Prevention: Lawmakers Consider Waiting Period For Gun Sales

Alyssa and Rob Black testifying at the Vermont Statehouse.
Peter Hirschfeld
Alyssa and Rob Black, whose 23-year-old son died by suicide in December, asked lawmakers Thursday to create a waiting period for gun purchases in Vermont.

The parents of a 23-year-old man who committed suicide last December are asking lawmakers to create a waiting period for gun purchases in Vermont.

It’s been less than three months since Alyssa Black’s youngest child took his own life, and she’s still piecing together the events that led to her son’s death.

Andrew Black played sports, had lots of friends, and had recently landed his dream job at Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield.

“He was a happy kid,” Alyssa Black told lawmakers at a hearing Thursday morning. “He was a healthy kid.”

Even the night before he died, she said, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

“When he was in our house, he was perfectly fine. Andrew and I made dinner together Wednesday night,” Alyssa Black said.

Andrew Black’s social media account has since shined some light on the event that triggered his despondence.

“It was as simple as seeing a picture on social media that put his mind in a place that he could not get out of,” Andrew’s dad, Rob Black, said. “I mean, it was that simple.”

Andrew Black’s solution to this temporary crisis was tragically permanent: He went to a gun store Thursday morning, and passed background check at 11:02 a.m.

“We know he was out of the store with a firearm at 11:30. And we know he was dead before 4 o’clock that afternoon,” Rob Black said.

Had Vermont been one of the 10 states with a law that requires a waiting period for gun purchases, the Blacks said their story would have had a different ending.

“Andrew ran out of time. He just needed a little bit more time, and that’s really what we’re just talking about - we’re just talking about a little bit of time,” Alyssa Black said.

Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, says a waiting period for gun sales could impede resident's access to means for self-defense.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, says a waiting period for gun sales could impede resident's access to means for self-defense.

Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, offered his condolences to the Black family after they testified Thursday morning. He said last year, his organization and others started something called the “Gun Shop Project,” “encouraging an individual who is contemplating suicide with a firearm to voluntarily transfer their firearm to a trusted individual.”

But Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution explicitly grants Vermonters “the right to bear arms for the defence (sic) of themselves.” And for people facing imminent risk of harm, Cutler said a 48-hour waiting period, as one proposal in Montpelier calls for, contravenes that right.

“If a woman is being stalked by an abusive husband, or any stalker, a waiting period could be the difference between life and death,” Cutler said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears said prospects of the legislation passing this year are far from certain.

“I think they’re 50-50 maybe,” Sears said Thursday.

And he said supporters of the bill will have to convince him and other lawmakers that the proposal will lead to a meaningful reduction in suicides.

“And as I see it, Vermont’s problem with firearms is suicide. And if there are things we can do to help prevent that, that’s the steps we need to take,” Sears said.

Supporters of the legislation, like Rebecca Bell, are trying to make the case that waiting periods will in fact result in fewer deaths by suicide.

Stories like the Blacks’, Bell told lawmakers, are “not a unique tragedy.”

“This is the story of Vermont,” Bell said.

Bell says that according to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of suicide among people 18 and younger in Vermont is higher than any other state in New England.

Bell said that’s despite the fact that young people here  have some of the lowest rates of suicide attempts, and lowest rates of suicide planning.

“And one of the lowest reported symptoms of depression. Yet, they are dying,” Bell said.

Bell said access to firearms that make young Vermonters more susceptible to death by suicide, because they’re the most lethal method for accomplishing the act.

And she said the Vermont Medical Society is endorsing the proposed waiting period, because it would delay access to guns at a time when they might be most deadly.

“Because we know that people who survive serious suicide attempts, 90 percent of them go on to live and don’t die by suicide,” Bell said.

Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportmen’s Clubs, says he understands the tragedy of suicide all too well. A beloved uncle and close friend, he told lawmakers Thursday, both died of suicide by gun.

But Bradley said lawmakers need to keep an important question in mind as they consider the proposed legislation.

“How do we balance the rights of a person who wishes to preserve their life versus a person who is intent on ending theirs?” Bradley said.

Bradley said in his view, the waiting period would unduly impede Vermonters from exercising that constitutional right to self-defense.

“Is it reasonable, fair and constitutional to subject that victim to any waiting period when any delay might well make the difference between saving their own life or preventing injury?” Bradley said.

Last year, Vermont lawmakers passed the most sweeping gun legislation in state history, in part because Gov. Phil Scott unexpectedly came out in favor of a ban on high capacity magazines, and raising the legal age to purchase a gun to 21 years old.

This year, however, Scott has said he's unlikely to support any additional restrictions on gun sales.

Sears’ committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed legislation on Tuesday, March 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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