Vermont's high rate of suicide with firearms was the dominant theme of a well-attended and well-mannered forum held Monday night in Burlington City Hall.
Organized by advocates of gun-safety measures in a state with few firearms regulations, the event took place 50 yards from the site of a fatal shooting almost exactly two years ago. Josh Pfenning, 35, died on November 10, 2011, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while camped in City Hall Park during the Occupy Burlington protests.
The way in which Pfenning died is not unusual in Vermont. With the exception of Pennsylvania, Vermont has the Northeast's highest per-capita rate of gun-related deaths, most of which take the form of suicide, said Eliot Nelson, a pediatrician at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
Vermonters are far more likely to kill themselves than one another, noted Sean Ackerman, a Fletcher Allen resident in child psychiatry. The state suicide rate stands at 16 deaths per 100,000 residents and the homicide rate is 1.6 per 100,000, he said, adding that more than half of suicides are carried out with firearms.
Suicide rates among adolescents are as much as 10 times higher for those in households where a gun is present, Ackerman said. Furthermore, Nelson pointed out that gun owners die by suicide at a higher rate than do Americans who do not own guns.
There's a clear, if counterintuitive, conclusion to be drawn, Ackerman suggested: "If you want to protect yourself, you won't have a gun in your house."
Declaring he is "neither for guns or against guns," Ackerman nevertheless sought to refute claims by Second Amendment defenders that guns don't kill people, people kill people, and would-be murderers will find a way to kill if denied access to guns.
He noted that of the 156 Americans, mainly children, killed in schools since 1990, almost all died of gunshots. Only a few lost their lives to homemade bombs, Ackerman noted. "When people go on school rampages," he said, "they haven't demonstrated an ability to kill without guns."
Most mass murderers exhibit signs of mental illness, Ackerman added. Seeking to counter claims that emphasis should be placed on improving mental health care rather than regulating guns, the psychiatrist noted that many troubled individuals refuse treatment. "There's no cure" for mental illness, he added, pointing out that relapses often occur. "It's far easier to remove a firearm than to cure mental illness," Ackerman said.
Present in the roughly 150-member audience were several men and women in the blaze-orange hats or vests worn by hunters — the standard uniform of gun-control opponents. A larger number of attendees wore green T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of Gun Sense Vermont, the group that sponsored the two-hour Veterans' Day forum.
Spectators listened respectfully to presentations by five speakers (pictured). They also contributed written questions and comments that were collected and read aloud in a manner consistent with Gun Sense Vermont's stated aim of promoting "a civil conversation" on the subject of firearm-safety legislation.
The forum's focus was on state measures. There was no discussion of efforts by the Burlington City Council to ban guns in bars, require safe storage of firearms or to enable police to seize guns in cases of suspected domestic abuse.
Statewide, "Vermont has a problem with domestic violence and a problem with firearms used to kill in domestic violence," declared Karen Tronsgard-Scott, director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She told the forum that half of the 225 homicides in Vermont between 1994 and 2012 took the form of domestic violence. And most of those killings involved firearms, Tronsgard-Scott said.
Vermont doesn't have a facility to store weapons that judges have ordered be taken from defendants in cases of alleged domestic violence. Gun Sense organizers are thus urging support for Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposal to allow federally licensed gun dealers and sheriffs to levy a fee on such defendants to cover the cost of storing their weapons.
That's one of the few gun-safety measures that appears to have some chance of becoming law in Vermont. State Rep. Mike Yantachka, a Charlotte Democrat (pictured), recounted various proposals offered in the legislature last year — none of which went anywhere.
Marie Adams, the Chittenden County organizer for Gun Sense Vermont, noted that Shumlin has opposed gun controls in Vermont on the grounds that only "a 50-state solution" will prove effective. But Congress has shown itself incapable of solving any contentious problem, Adams noted.
"What's wrong with tackling this issue one state at a time?" she asked.