It takes real courage to go public with the kind of deep and personal pain that Ge Wu and Shuwan Xue are experiencing. But they did so this week in the Vermont Legislature in the hope of preventing other parents from experiencing the horror they've been through.
Nine months ago, their son, Aaron Bing Xue (pictured, in 2007), a 15-year-old freshman at Essex High School, killed himself with a handgun. In September, I sat down with Aaron's mother, Ge Wu, and father, Shuwan Xue (pronounced "shooway"), to try to understand why their son, a seemingly happy, well-adjusted and successful teen — honor-roll student, star varsity athlete on the Essex HS tennis team, and accomplished musician in the Vermont Youth Orchestra with lots of friends — would take his own life so suddenly and violently.
In the early morning hours of April 17, 2009, Aaron was found dead behind the school library at Essex High School, the victim of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Several hours earlier, Aaron had been caught shoplifting a bag of candy at a nearby supermarket. He was not arrested or charged. Shortly before his death, Aaron left a voicemail on his sister's cellphone, and scrawled a message of apology to his family on a nearby tennis court.
According to the Essex Police who investigated the death, the gun Aaron used to kill himself was provided to him by a fellow student, the son of a former Vermont State Police officer who died several years ago. Neither Ge Wu nor Shuwan Xue kept guns in the home and, to their knowledge, Aaron had never fired one before.
Today, Ge Wu and Shuwan Xue are no closer to understanding the reasons their son died than they were nine months ago. In fact, as Shuwan told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, it's likely they'll never find the answers they're looking for. As he put it, "We're desperately clinging to Aaron's life, even though we know we can't bring him back."
But mingled with their profound sadness is a simmering rage over the fact that the family of the boy who gave Aaron the gun apparently didn't lock up that weapon from the kids, nor will they bear any legal responsibility for Aaron's death. Which is why Ge and Shuwan are now asking Vermont lawmakers to enact a so-called CAP — or "Child Access Prevention" — law. Such legislation, which has already been adopted in 28 other states, would require gun owners to lock up and secure their weapons if they know that children have access to them. CAP laws also hold adults criminally liable if they store firearms improperly and leave them within reach of minors.
Both Ge and Shuwan contend that had Aaron not had such easy access to a gun, the shame, humiliation and guilt he was experiencing over being caught shoplifting would have soon passed and he likely would be alive today.
"We do believe this: When Aaron was in a moment of crisis, a moment of vulnerability, a gun made all the difference," Shuwan told the committee.
Aaron Xue's death was by no means an isolated incident in Vermont. Though Vermont experienced a record decline in homicides last year — according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center, there wasn't a single handgun-related murder in 2009 — Aaron Xue was one of several handgun-related suicides last year.
Shortly after Aaron's death, Shuwan told the committee, he and his wife were contacted by several other Vermont families whose children died under similar circumstances. They include a family from Stowe whose 17-year-old son also killed himself with a gun after being caught shoplifting. Another family from Fairfax lost their 18-year-old son just one day after talking to him about drinking alcohol. And a third family, from Shelburne, lost their 12-year-old son, Shuwan reported, after having a conversation with him about his computer usage.
Such deaths don't necessarily make the news, Shuwan told the committee, especially if the families choose to keep their grief private. But as Shuwan reminded lawmakers, suicide remains the second leading cause of death of teens in Vermont, behind automobile accidents. "The availability of guns can make a huge difference in terms of a person's decisions and actions," he added.
While acknowledging his own ignorance of the often-polarized politics of gun-control legislation, Shuwan insisted to lawmakers that this law is neither pro-gun nor anti-gun. It's simply intended to keep guns out of the hands of children. Shuwan noted that he's received phone calls and letters of support for a Vermont CAP law from gun owners and hunters.
Following Shuwan's oftentimes emotional testimony, several committee members expressed their interest in advancing such a bill. Rep. Kathy Pellett of Chester called it "totally outrageous that we don't have a law that requires gun owners to store their guns properly ... I think the time has come."
After the committee's adjournment, Chair Bill Lippert of Hinesburg, who seemed visibly moved by Shuwan's testimony, expressed his willingness to see such legislation move this session. "There will be a bill introduced," Lippert said after the meeting. "I didn't know that until just this afternoon. But there will be one."