Unusual Partnership Aims to Reduce Suicide in Vermont

By Kyle Midura, WCAX.com

MONTPELIER, Vt. -Those who work in the business of guns long enough must come to terms with the possibility that they’ll sell a weapon to someone preparing to take their own life with it.”I remember the guy, I remember the event, it’s something that you don’t really let go of. It doesn’t keep me up at night,” said Jon Sanborn, the manager of Barre’s R&L Archery.

gun-shop-projectFor Sanborn, that fear became a reality last year. He says they do deny a few sales a year to those who pass background checks, but that’s typically because of a customer’s demonstrated lack of experience, not warning signs.

“I sold the gentleman the gun myself. He seemed perfectly fine, clear-headed, didn’t give off any real warning signs,” Sanborn said.

Nearly half of Vermont suicides involve a gun. That and a push from recently passed legislation led the Vt. Department of Mental Health and gun advocacy groups to form an unlikely pairing. Its aim: educating gun sellers of the possible warning signs displayed by customers considering taking their own lives. They’ve distributed posters and information to gun sellers.

“We’re happy to help out as we can,” Sanborn said.

Vermont’s pro-gun groups have bought in.

“We’ll remain committed to doing whatever we can to continue our involvement and support with the hope that this will have a lasting and meaningful effect on the lives of Vermonters,” said Chris Bradley of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Spokespeople from the department of mental health say they’re working on finding a way to measure the Gun Shop project’s effect.

Sanborn praises the initiative but doesn’t expect it to have much impact given his experience.

“Really, looking back, there wasn’t much I could have done about it,” he said.

Sanborn says red flags are easy to list but rarely raised.

Advocates contend the effort can only help, and should extend beyond the store.

“You, as an individual who also owns guns, may be the best person to talk to someone who’s having a hard time,” said Alex Potter of the Center for Health and Learning.

That’s because they say a suicidal person may be hesitant to share dark thoughts for fear of losing their guns. Advocates say those in the stereotypically stoic community need to be more afraid of losing a peer than an awkward conversation.

Two free suicide prevention workshops for gun owners will be held this month. The first is in Rutland Sunday, Sept. 18, from 3:30-5 p.m. at the Rutland Country Club. The second is in St. Johnsbury the following Sunday, Sept. 25, from 3-4:30 p.m. at the Fairbanks Museum.