BRATTLEBORO >> Gun-owner groups in partnership with the Center for Health and Learning are mobilizing to launch the Vermont Gun Shop Project in an effort to reduce firearm-related suicides in the state.
Gun Owners of Vermont, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and others involved say the effort is designed to open communications about suicide education and prevention among the gun-owner community. The Center for Health and Learning, a nonprofit with offices in Brattleboro, focuses on healthy community initiatives, including suicide prevention.
The Vermont Gun Shop Project is meant to tackle the issue of firearm-related suicides. According to the Center for Disease and Control, 59 of Vermont's 65 firearms deaths in 2013 were suicides.
"The big problem now is people are not seeking help because they're afraid that their firearms are going to be taken away," said Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont and a resident of Westminster.
In cooperation with the Vermont Department of Mental Health, The Center for Health and Learning's Vermont Suicide Prevention Center examined the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project.
That model encourages gun shops, firearms ranges and gun dealers to design and hang suicide prevention posters at their locations. The Vermont Gun Shop project will mimic the New Hampshire model.
The Center for Health and Learning's program specialist, Alexander Potter, said the organization has been working with Cutler and the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Club for a couple months on the project. The posters have been produced and are expected to be distributed around the state within the next couple of weeks.
Potter, the point person on the Gun Shop Project in Vermont, said Cutler and his colleagues have been "really great to work with on this."
"And they are going out of their way to promote suicide prevention in the gun-owner community of Vermont," Potter said.
Cutler approached Potter about going beyond hanging posters to explore suicide prevention training for members of the Gun Owners of Vermont and any other interested parties. The Center for Health and Learning has received funding for two trainings — one in northern Vermont and the other in southern Vermont.
Dates haven't been set, but Potter said they will be in the spring.
The training sessions will last between 90 minutes and two hours, according to Potter. The sessions will include "gatekeeper training," such as what risk factors put people at potentially higher risks of suicide, warning signs that might indicate an individual is at risk, and protective factors to keep people safe and not contemplate suicide.
The training will also debunks myths, such as if you talk to someone about suicide that it puts the idea in their head, Potter said.
"The training focuses on giving everyone tools for reaching out to our loved ones if we think they might be in danger," said Potter. "In this case, we are looking at a very specific audience, the gun-owner community, so we will tailor the conversation to them."
Cutler said his specific concern is that not enough people are reaching out for help when they're depressed and/or contemplating suicide. Potter and Cutler say their ultimate goal is for to people to seek help and to convey what the law states about firearms with regard to mental health concerns.
"Going into a therapist in Vermont is not going to cause you to lose possession of your firearms," said Potter. "If you are concerned about that enough that it's keeping you from a therapist, how about talking to a friend of yours who is willing to hold on to those guns for you? Then let's connect you with somebody who can give you some help."
"If we can prevent [suicide] in anyway, I think this is a proactive way to do it. It's friends helping friends," said Cutler.
Cutler believes Gun Owners of Vermont needs to play a role in preventing firearm suicides; however, he does not believe that should be through tightening gun laws.
"That's actually the worst thing that you can do," Cutler said. "A lot of people in that position are afraid they are going to get their guns taken away, they're afraid they're going to lose their rights, they're afraid they're going to get locked up. And with our program, it's like the buddy system."
Cutler calls the gun-owner community "tight-knit," and that alone serves as a form of accountability regarding suicide prevention and safety.
"Being in the firearms community, we'll be able to understand what their problems are and things like that," said Cutler.