Opinion: Senate gun bill passage is a public health imperative

The Vermont Public Health Association is greatly concerned about gun violence death and disability and its profound and lasting negative effect on families and communities. Thus we support the 2015 Legislature’s efforts to create legislation that will minimize Vermonters’ exposure to ill-intended or accidental gun violence.
S.31 is presently being re-crafted to address specific gaps in our state laws that make it easier for those with ill intent to access a firearm. Effective legislative provisions that are now being considered will prohibit violent felons from purchasing firearms and allow the Vermont legal system to easily prosecute these felons. Also, the proposed legislation will rectify Vermont’s lack of participation in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), enabling the state’s legal system to confidentially report those individuals with a mental illness who are found to be a danger to themselves or to others.
Vermont may not seem to have a “gun problem” if we consider only our numbers of actual deaths. However, if we examine the full issue using additional data, we realize the true extent of the problem. For example, of Vermont’s eight domestic-violence related homicides in 2013, four were committed with a firearm. In addition, a recent report by the national Violence Prevention Center detailed that, for the first time, Vermont has more deaths due to firearms than due to motor vehicles (78 vs. 62 in 2011). The majority of these firearm deaths are due to suicide.
Public health professionals in Vermont have long approached public health and safety by using a variety of methods that include the complementary tools of education and regulation. For example, in order to reduce injuries from firearms, Vermont has educational efforts such as hunter safety courses and advising parents on safe storage of firearms so as to keep them out of the reach of children. We also have existing state laws and regulations around gun ownership and sales.
However, a specific review of these regulations reveals serious gaps that make it too easy for people with ill intent to buy or possess firearms. In addition, these lax guns regulations can allow a person considering suicide to easily purchase a firearm. This is of concern because those who attempt suicide by using a firearm rarely survive the attempt and thus there is no chance for family and friends to help them recover and seek therapy.
Thus the creation of S.31-related legislation is a key pubic health strategy that can be employed by state legislators to continue efforts to separate illegal or preventable gun violence from the process of allowing legitimate gun ownership.
Sally Kerschner
Board Member
Vermont Public Health Association

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