The post-Newtown debate over gun control in Vermont has centered largely around the specter of armed killers seeking to inflict maximum harm on their targets.
But of the 130 deaths caused by firearms in this state over the last two years, all but six were the result of suicide.
Now a Vermont lawmaker is trying to address the link between suicide and guns, which are by far the most frequently used method used by people taking their own lives.
Rep. George Till aims to impose a 48-hour waiting period on retail transactions at gun shops. His proposal would not affect sales at gun shows.
"It’s about avoiding that confluence of the urge and the means," Till says.
But the bill, introduced last week, is already facing opposition.
"They try to justify every restriction they want to impose on us in the gun community, and we’ve had enough with the bills," says Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
Till, a medical doctor from Jericho, is all too familiar with the impacts of suicide. A former coach at the Mount Mansfield Youth Lacrosse Club, Till has lost three former players to suicide; two of them took their lives with a gun.
In a separate incident, Till says, he had to attend the funeral of a friend’s son, who shot himself with a gun he had purchased only hours earlier. Till says the high-achieving victim was distraught over a poor test score.
"We have all kinds of research telling us just how impulsive the act of suicide really is," Till says. "And if we can figure out a way to keep that gun out of the hands of someone during those moments when they’re actually capable of going through with it, then I think we prevent suicides."
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Vermont for people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to data collected by the Vermont Department of Health. And guns are used in more than half of the suicides reported annually in Vermont – a rate consistent with national trends.
"Guns are by far the most lethal way of committing suicide, and unfortunately they are incredibly effective," Till says. "You don’t get many second chances."
At least seven academic studies have sought to gauge the impact of waiting periods on gun-related incidents like murder, robbery and suicides. A review of the scientific literature by Temple University’s Public Health Law Research found that "there is insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of waiting-period laws as public health interventions aimed at preventing gun-related violence and suicide."
But Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says there’s lots of anecdotal evidence of people using just-bought guns to take their own lives.
"We know from a lot of research that the best way to prevent a suicide is to make sure there are no lethal means available to a person who is contemplating suicide," Gebbia says. "So if we could delay that access at that moment, then we get that chance for someone to intervene or for someone to change their mind, which happens."
Gun-rights advocates, already lining up against other gun-control bills on tap in Montpelier, are less enthusiastic. Hughes was among the Vermonters who took to the steps of the Statehouse on Saturday to protest gun legislation. He says any attempts to impose conditions on gun purchases constitute an erosion of Vermonters’ Second Amendment rights.
"It’s nitpick here, it’s nitpick there," Hughes says. "Whatever it is, we’re going to oppose it."
Till says he’s aware of the opposition, evidenced by the growing stream of critical emails arriving at his legislative inbox. But he says he’s eager to prove to people like Hughes that it’s not their guns he’s after.
"I am not trying to impede anyone’s ability to get a gun, or restrict how they use it," Till says.
Hughes, however, is unconvinced. And with most high-ranking elected officials in Vermont on record opposing state-based gun legislation, Till and other gun-control advocates will have a tough time generating any forward momentum in Montpelier.
"We had an aberration (in Newtown, Conn.) and the gun-control people, they see this as their opportunity to run with something," Hughes said. "We understand the committee process. We will make sure legislators hear our views, and we’re hopeful they’ll act on the basis of sound public policy."