Editor’s note: This is part of TNR’s Letters to Legislators Series.
Dear Senator Sears,
Psychologists and psychiatrists assess whether a person is suicidal, a danger to themselves, based on whether the person has a detailed plan to kill themselves and the means with which to accomplish it. Neither, by itself, is sufficient. The person is questioned in depth. Saying they’re going to shoot themselves is not an indicator of suicidal risk, unless their plan includes, for example, the particular firearm they’re planning to use; where, when and how they’re planning to use it, alone or with others; and have they discussed their plan with anyone. They must also have means: access to a firearm, a combination to a safe, access to ammunition, money to purchase a firearm and/or ammunition, etc. Secondary gain is also assessed, who else will be affected by the suicide, who will be harmed, what statement is being made, what message is being sent, if any.
It is exceedingly rare for a person to commit suicide without first having made detailed plans. They may put a plan on hold, then pick it back up at a later time, but it does not come to fruition without planning and consideration. Mandating a waiting period by law, before the purchase of a firearm, is placing a requirement the suicide has already met. It’s not a deterrent. The suicide accomplishes their goal, if not now, then later. Those not truly suicidal do not die, also deliberately.
The proposed waiting period legislation will impact only law abiding Vermonters and would not be expected to reduce suicides.
In the tragic case of Andrew Black and his family, who ask in Andrew’s obituary for “cooling off” legislation to prevent suicide, there are many questions and few facts known.
It is understandable the family would like some good to come from their loss. The question is whether any good would come from their request. We know imposing a waiting period in firearm purchasing puts some people at risk — those at risk of imminent deadly violence would be prevented from meaningful and effective self-defense mechanisms. Further, they’d lose the deterrent effect of firearm possession, which is often effective without having to fire a shot.
The family refuses to reveal details of Andrew’s state of mind or what led to his suicide. However, without analyzing these and many other currently unexplored factors, one cannot understand what might have prompted this young man to take his life nor what measures might have reduced the chance of that happening. The grieving family is in pain, may feel some guilt, and is using the power and broad scope of statewide legislation and media attention to self-soothe.
Included in the analysis would be the question of why Andrew chose to use a firearm? He spent considerable money to purchase the handgun he used to kill himself, instead of choosing a method which was without additional financial expenditure. His father had firearms in the family home, locked. What is the connection, if any? He brought the weapon into, and killed himself in, the family home. This makes a very big statement. He left no explanatory note. These are meaningful pieces to the picture. The family understands some of the picture but will not share with the public. Instead, they wish to impose restrictions on all Vermonters, though Andrew’s case may be specific only to himself and his family. There may be no valid generalization that can be drawn from his actions which are applicable to anyone else. Without a forensic psychological examination of Andrew’s behavior, statements, social media writings, notes, conversations, etc., we’re just guessing. That’s not a basis for writing restrictive anti-self-defense legislation.
Neither the case of Andrew Black, nor suicide data, provide a compelling reason to knowingly endanger those at imminent risk of lethal danger by preventing them from purchasing self-defense firearms at the time of need and requiring an intentional delay of several days. I encourage you to reconsider the wisdom of this legislation as it is likely to do harm but very unlikely to do any good.
Jeffrey Kaufman, M.D.