Local News

Gun Shop Project unites disparate groups to cut gun-related suicides

By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger.org
A program to reduce firearm-related suicides in Vermont has brought together gun groups, suicide prevention advocates and mental health experts.
Members of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and employees of the Department of Mental Health joined suicide prevention advocates Thursday, Sept. 1, to celebrate the rollout of the Gun Shop Project at a suicide prevention conference in Montpelier.
Two workshops on the issue are planned this month: one in Rutland on Sept. 18, the other in St. Johnsbury on Sept. 25.
The project, an initiative backed by the Legislature in a bill that passed in 2015, aims to reach out via gun sellers to people who may be experiencing suicidal feelings.
Meetings about implementing the Gun Shop Project began a year ago, according to Alex Potter of the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, which is part of the Brattleboro-based Center for Health and Learning. Groups including the sportsmen’s federation and Gun Owners of Vermont began distributing posters to firearms retailers around Vermont about the project six months ago. Posters with help-line phone numbers were sent to gun shops and firing ranges. Organizers are also supplying tip sheets for how to speak with a potential customer whom a gun shop operator might be concerned about.
“We’re not asking the individual to be a therapist. We’re not asking them to try to work with that person there and then. We’re asking that owner to say, ‘Here is a resource I would recommend that you call’,” Potter said. “That’s something that an individual can do without feeling that they need a master’s to be able to have that conversation.”
Potter cited statistics from 2014, when 48 percent of the 126 recorded suicides in Vermont involved a firearm.
Jaskanwar Batra, medical director of the Department of Mental Health, lauded the collaboration behind the Gun Shop Project.
“If you listen to the discussion on the national debate one might be tempted to think that we could not find common ground between advocates for suicide prevention and gun shop owners and the organizations that represent them,” Batra said. “I’m proud to say this could not be further from the truth in Vermont.”
It is based on a New Hampshire program that was spearheaded by the owner of a firearms store. Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, first heard about New Hampshire’s program several years ago.
“By taking the fundamental approach of raising awareness of these tragedies to Vermont sportsmen and sportswomen, sportsmen and sportswomen could then become more educated in what to look for and further become aware of what resources were available,” Bradley said. He said there could be openings for people to reach out to others.
The speakers resisted discussing a proposal to implement universal background checks for gun sales, which several high-profile Democrats have said they plan to bring to the Legislature in the next session.
“This is really something that we leave at the door,” Bradley said. “The fact of this matter is that we’re looking at sportsmen helping sportsmen.”

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