Alyssa and Rob Black testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee
Less than five hours after he purchased a handgun last December, Andrew Black had died by suicide, his parents told the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
In emotional testimony, Alyssa Black said that her 23-year-old son had appeared normal to clerks who had sold him a cup of coffee, a turkey sandwich, a Pepsi and a gun. In fact, she said, he’d been in the midst of a “fleeting, two-day-long self-pity fest” sparked by a social media post.
If only Andrew had been required to wait a certain period before buying the gun, father Rob Black told the committee, he would still be alive today.
The Essex family came to the Statehouse to advocate for legislation sponsored by Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) that would require gun buyers to wait 48 hours between passing a background check and taking possession of a firearm. The bill would also require guns to be locked up when not in use.
In the months since they called for such a waiting period in Andrew’s obituary, the Essex family has been piecing together the final hours of his life, using social media history, receipts, background check information and recordings he made on his phone.
Alyssa Black said she “can almost feel the doubt” in the messages her son recorded as he moved forward with a plan to kill himself. At one point, he recorded a message giving himself 36 hours to live, she said. The deadline passed minutes before Andrew bought his gun.
“You could see him trying to give himself more time,” Alyssa said.
But in his final messages, Andrew told someone that he’d done something bad and it was “too late” to reverse it. His mother told senators that Black then sent a photo of his new gun on his bed and said goodbye.
Rob, who sat quietly for much of his wife’s testimony, told the committee that the couple has been contacted by people all over the country with “eerily similar stories” to their own.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, who works in the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Vermont Medical Center and serves on the state’s child fatality review team, said the Blacks aren’t alone.
She said she couldn’t disclose the details of cases she deals with at the hospital or the ones she reviews as part of the state team. But she said that, in a way, the committee had already heard those stories.
“I can tell you that they are the story of Andrew Black,” she said.
Bell said impulsive young people with easy access to guns — more lethal than almost any other means of suicide — can create a deadly combination. Often, she said, suicide attempts take place within minutes of a person’s decision to kill themselves.
“That time period is very, very short,” she said. According to Bell, a waiting period paired with mandatory safe storage of guns could make a significant difference in Vermont’s suicide rate, especially among young people.
Gun rights advocates also see Baruth's bill as a matter of life and death. They are fighting the proposal because they say it could hinder access to guns for people who need them quickly for legitimate reasons, such as defense against domestic abusers and rabid animals.
“Fact: A waiting period can be very dangerous,” Ed Cutler, the president of the advocacy group Gun Owners of Vermont, told committee members Thursday. “If a woman is being stalked by an abusive husband or any stalker, a waiting period could be the difference between life and death.”
Wildlife could also pose a threat to Vermonters without quick access to guns, Cutler said.
“Fact: You may also need to have a firearm for protection against rabid animals,” Cutler said. “Rabies is a serious problem in this state … My fear is it’s coming back.”
According to the Vermont Department of Health, the state documented 24 cases of rabies in animals in 2018 — down from 48 in 2016 and 166 in 2007.
Cutler said waiting periods provide no guarantee that a person won’t die by suicide, but they do guarantee a delay to Vermonters exercising their constitutional rights.
“One should not be required to wait two days in order to protect themselves,” he said.
Baruth said he is optimistic the waiting period legislation could pass this year, potentially in combination with a trio of bills from Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), a gun-rights supporter, designed to address unintended consequences of gun legislation passed last year.
Rodgers’ bills would amend a new ban on high-capacity magazines to allow their use in shooting competitions and enable family members to share them. Baruth said he’s “open to those” bills.
“I have to say I’m mostly open to them as part of a bargain to [pass] what I think is the most important feature today, which is the waiting period,” Baruth said.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said his committee will take up all four bills as soon as lawmakers return from their Town Meeting Day break next week.