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A suicide prevention method took hold in 3 states. Can it happen in Wisconsin?

Second Amendment


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 have chosen to reverse that ban.

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

The novel and relatively unknown suicide prevention method found its home first in the state of Washington, with their legislature passing a bill in 2017 allowing people to voluntarily ban themselves from owning guns. Since then, 22 people have added their names to the database, according to a spokesperson with the Washington State Patrol. Their law keeps the ban in effect unless the person files 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: Other people can’t place someone else’s name on the list. The bans aren’t permanent, and don’t come with authority to remove existing guns. Names can be removed from the list.

In Virginia, 15 people have entered their names into the “do not sell” database since a similar law went into effect on July 1, 2020–passed on a party line vote with Republicans opposing. It was signed into law by their governor at the time, Democrat Ralph Northam. None of the 15 have filed to revoke the ban, according to a spokesperson for the Virginia State Police.

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

The professor behind the method

Giving a person the option of banning themselves from buying guns for a specified period of time is a suicide prevention idea first generated by a University of Alabama law professor focused on mental health law.

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

“I have been suicidal,” he said in an interview. “I knew if I had this (self-ban) option, I would take it. And I figure I wasn’t alone.”

After getting the idea during a symposium in 2013, he got to work on the research. He conducted a number of surveys; in one, 46% of a group of 200 psychiatric patients said they’d use a self-ban option if it was available to them. Other groups he studied at varying levels of risks 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, this could save a lot of lives.”

Vars put together model legislation and has been trying to sell it to states ever since. The journey has been uphill, with a 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 didn’t oppose a bill that included a voluntary 21-day ban. Past sponsors have left the legislature, and he says there’s a version still being circulated but otherwise, he’s still waiting.

A chief obstacle is concerns that the waiting periods before a person can remove their name from the list may be too long. There’s been fears someone may end up in an emergency where they need a gun right away, and some of the bills have included ways to address that. But it’s also exactly the delay that saves lives, Vars said–the ability to not buy a gun in a moment of personal mental crisis.

“It really ought to be a federal law,” Vars said. “The federal government could set up a website and make registration confidential, 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 has passed, he admitted it was discouraging.

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

Agard’s proposal in Wisconsin

The issue of suicide is also personal to state senator Melissa Agard (D-Madison), who says she’s lost an uncle and neighbors to suicide by firearm.

“Here in the Capitol building, we lost one of our colleagues to suicide a handful of years ago,” she said. For her, 41 people using the law in other states is a win. “I see it as a great success. I very much believe that in that 40-some individuals, there have been lives saved.”

While her proposal wouldn’t give law enforcement any authority to take away existing guns or allow someone else to register a person on the list, Sen. Agard’s proposal would allow a person to enter themselves in a state database that would ban them from buying guns for a specific length of time.

The bill goes further than laws enacted in three other states, where the minimum ban times are much shorter before a person could remove themselves from the list.

The proposal would require the Wisconsin Department of Justice to keep a database of people who have submitted a form requesting that the DOJ prevent 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 select a one-, five-, or 20-year ban; once the first “irrevocable” year had passed, the person would need a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist to sign an affidavit in order to be removed from the database during the remainder of the five- or 10-year ban.

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

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

In Wisconsin, the DOJ performs background checks on people who buy guns from licensed dealers; under this bill, anyone who had asked to be entered into the voluntary database would be flagged as banned from owning a gun during that DOJ check.

In Washington, a person who submits their name has to wait at least seven days but then only needs to make the request and provide their photo ID to be removed from the list–and any record that they were on the list would be destroyed. (A “clean up” bill currently progressing through the Washington state legislature would introduce some modifications to the law, including making it a civil infraction to have a gun if the voluntary waiver is in effect, as well as encouraging mental health professionals to discuss the option of a waiver with suicidal clients.)

In Utah, the initial ban lasts 180 days and either ends automatically or could be renewed; a person would have to wait 30 days from entering the form to ask that their name be removed. In Virginia, the waiting period before a person can ask that their name be 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 themselves up to ban themselves from entering casinos for a set period of time, and the method has been around for years longer than Vars’ firearm self-exclusion initiative.

“After I’ve put the [firearm self-exclusion] bill out, I’ve had people reaching out to me and saying, I only wish that we had this policy here in Wisconsin,” Agard said. “I myself would add my name to that list.”



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