A suicide prevention method has been implemented in 3 states. Can this happen in Wisconsin?

MADISON, Wis. — In the past few years, 41 people in three states across the country have voluntarily banned themselves from buying guns: none of them chose to overturn that ban.

Since 2017, Madison-area state senator Melissa Agard has tried to gain traction in the state legislature that would give Wisconsinans a similar option. She presents it again, but since 2017 she says the bill has never even had a public hearing.

The new and relatively unknown method of suicide prevention first found its way into Washington state, with the legislature passing a bill in 2017 allowing people to voluntarily prohibit themselves from owning firearms. Since then, 22 people have added their names to the database, according to a Washington State Patrol spokesperson. Their law keeps the ban in place unless the person files a case to remove their name; so far no one has.

The self-exclusion ban, developed by a law professor who studied how to create an initiative that wouldn’t interfere with the 2nd Amendment, has a few key elements: Others can’t put someone’s name on it. another on the list. Bans are not permanent and are not allowed to remove existing weapons. Names can be deleted from the list.

In Virginia, 15 people have put their names on the ‘do not sell’ database since a similar law took effect on July 1, 2020 – passed in a party vote with opposition from Republicans. It was signed into law by their then Governor, Democrat Ralph Northam. None of the 15 have requested the ban be revoked, according to a Virginia State Police spokesperson.

The law also found its way to a Republican-controlled state: Utah. Passed last summer, 4 people have since used the law to ban themselves from owning firearms, with none choosing to revoke the ban (which automatically expires after 180 days, with an option to renew).

The teacher behind the method

Giving a person the ability to refrain from buying guns for a set period of time is a suicide prevention idea first generated by a University of Alabama law professor who specializes in the law of mental health.

Fred Vars has struggled his entire life with bipolar disorder and knows the struggle well.

“I was suicidal,” he said in an interview. “I knew if I had that option (of self-banning) I would take it. And I tell myself that I was not alone.

After coming up with the idea at a symposium in 2013, he started working on the research. He conducted a number of surveys; in one case, 46% of a group of 200 psychiatric patients said they would use a self-ban option if it was available to them. Other groups he studied at different levels of risk had lower, but still robust, numbers of people who would consider the option of a voluntary gun purchase ban if they could.

“That’s when I realized it could save a lot of lives.”

Vars developed model legislation and has been trying to sell it to states ever since. The journey has been difficult, with the search for dedicated sponsors being the most crucial element of his push. In his own home state of Alabama, he says the National Rifle Association did not oppose a bill calling for a 21-day voluntary ban. The former godfathers have left the legislature, and he says a version is still circulating, but otherwise he is still waiting.

One of the main obstacles is the fear that the waiting times before a person can remove their name from the list are too long. Vars said opponents of the bill feared someone might find themselves in an emergency situation where they needed a gun immediately, and some of the bills included ways to address that issue. But it’s also exactly delay that saves lives, Vars said — the ability not to buy a gun in a moment of personal mental crisis.

“It really should be federal law,” Vars said. “The federal government could create a website and make registration private, reliable and easy.”

When presented with the results of News 3 Now’s research finding a total of 41 people using the law in the three states where it was passed, he admitted it was disheartening.

“To be honest, I wish the number was higher,” he said. “The real barrier is public education. Almost everyone I talk to says, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of that.’ »

The Agard proposal in Wisconsin

The issue of suicide is also personal to State Senator Melissa Agard (D-Madison), who says she lost an uncle and neighbors to suicide by gunshot.

“Here on Capitol Hill, we lost one of our colleagues to suicide a few years ago,” she said. For her, 41 people using the law in other states is a victory. “I see it as a great success. I firmly believe that in these forty individuals, lives have been saved.

While her proposal would not give law enforcement any authority to remove existing weapons or allow someone else to put someone on the list, Senator Agard’s proposal would allow someone to register in a state database that would prohibit him from buying firearms. for a fixed period.

The bill goes further than laws enacted in three other states, where the minimum blackout times are much shorter before a person can opt out of the list.

The proposal would require the Wisconsin Department of Justice to maintain a database of people who submitted a form asking the DOJ to stop them from buying a handgun. The ban would last for at least a year, during which the person could not remove their name from the database. The person would choose a ban of one, five or 20 years; once the first “irrevocable” year has passed, the person would need a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist to sign an affidavit in order to be removed from the database for the remainder of the five- or ten-year ban.

Agard says there’s plenty of room for compromise and amendment in those waiting periods, if it could even get a hearing. She says she’s spoken to fellow Republicans about the idea, and they seem intrigued.

“‘I’m going to look into that more, Melissa,’ that’s usually what I hear,” she explained. “There is a real challenge in this building to talk about guns.”

In Wisconsin, the DOJ conducts background checks on people who purchase firearms from authorized dealers; under this bill, anyone who applied to be listed in the voluntary database would be flagged as prohibited from owning a firearm during this verification by the DOJ.

In Washington, a person who submits their name must wait at least seven days, but then only needs to apply and provide their photo ID to be removed from the list – and any records indicating that they appeared on the list would be destroyed. (A “cleanup” bill currently moving through the Washington State Legislature would introduce some changes to the law, including making it a civil offense to have a firearm if voluntary surrender is in effect, as well as making it a civil offense to have a gun if voluntary surrender is in effect, as well as ‘by encouraging mental health professionals to discuss the possibility of quitting with suicidal clients.)

In Utah, the initial ban lasts 180 days and ends automatically or can be renewed; a person would have to wait 30 days from filling in the form to request that their name be removed. In Virginia, the waiting period before a person can request to have their name removed is 21 days.

Across the country, 21 states have adopted a similar self-exclusion program for people addicted to gambling, as well as several countries. People can sign up to ban themselves from entering casinos for a set period of time, and the method has been around for years longer than Vars’ gun self-exclusion initiative.

“After putting the [firearm self-exclusion] charge, I’ve had people contact me and say, I just wish we had this policy here in Wisconsin,” Agard said. “I would add my name to that list myself.”