Wisconsin gun shops would be eligible to receive grants to support prevention of suicide by firearms throughout the state under a bipartisan bill proposed by a two Republican lawmakers.
Co-author Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) said during an Assembly Mental Health and Substance Abuse Prevention committee hearing on Tuesday that the bill would be one way of helping people who are suffering from a mental or behavioral crisis.
“We lost 888 Wisconsinites last year to suicide. The use of firearms in suicides has increased over the last decade. Unfortunately, suicide by firearm leaves little room for a second chance,” James said on Tuesday. “While this legislation won’t completely eliminate suicide in our state, providing gun owners with an additional layer of voluntary security during times of mental distress will save lives.”
The state would dedicate $150,000 over the next two years to a grant program targeted at supporting suicide prevention measures in gun shops. The grants, which would be administered by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), would be limited to $5,000 per one year, according to a fiscal estimate.
The money could be used for training staff at a firearm retailer or firearm range to recognize signs that someone might be considering suicide, providing suicide prevention materials to distribute at the stores or providing voluntary or the temporary firearm storage for the owner of a firearm.
The bill is backed by a bipartisan group of legislators including seven Assembly Democrats, five Assembly Republicans, four Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans, and received mostly positive feedback during the public hearing.
James told the committee that gun shops are often a place of community for gun owners and could be a good spot to check in on people.
“Every person is going to be different in how you treat them and the bottom line is our gun shops — I have my preferred gun shop back at home that I go to — and the relationships that are developed and the friendships that are formed, I would feel extremely comfortable if they were to confront me and ask about my mental state,” James said. He added that it’s “very appropriate for us as human beings to hold each other accountable out of love.”
Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), the lead author in the Assembly, emphasized that the provision to store one’s firearms would be completely voluntary and respects people’s second amendment rights.
“People are voluntarily surrendering that right when they feel that they can’t currently handle it and they need to set those guns aside, turn them over to the gun shops or the other secure facilities, while they’re getting through a personal crisis,” Sortwell said. “That’s what’s really imperative here. We all take an oath to uphold the Constitution, both of the state as well as the federal government, and this bill respects those rights while still trying to move us in a direction that provides more safety for our public.”
Organizations and local municipalities would be eligible to apply for the grant, and recipients would need to provide matching funds or in-kind services having a value equal to at least 20% of the amount awarded
Rep. Lori Palmeri (D-Oshkosh) asked the authors how it would be determined that a gun owner’s crisis was over.
James responded that some gun shops prefer to have a gun owner and a loved one go to the shop together once they’re ready to retrieve it. However, he said “ultimately, it is up to the individual. If they come back and want to retrieve their firearm, they’re given the opportunity. No questions asked.”
Sortwell added that training that is provided to staff could help with follow-up when someone comes to retrieve a firearm, potentially getting individuals to consider whether they are ready to have their firearms back. He also pointed to law enforcement measures like Chapter 51 that could prevent individuals who are actively going through a mental health crisis from retrieving their firearms in extreme cases.
Julia Stanley, project manager for the Healthy Kids Collaborative at UW-Health, said community partners can be an important tool for spreading awareness and preventing suicide. She also pointed to the Gun Shop Project, a program started by gun shop owners in Wisconsin that already provides many of the services the bill would encourage, as an example for how community has helped to prevent suicide. The bill would provide state resources for such efforts.
“When an individual has thoughts of suicide, we know that restricting access to lethal means like firearms can be truly life-saving. Over half of suicide attempts occur within 10 minutes of the impulse,” Stanley told the committee. “Gun shop owners and firearm range staff can be critical partners in educating gun owners in suicide prevention and recognizing signs of suicide.
Christopher Lee, a representative with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an organization that represents over 10,000 firearm businesses across the country, suggested that the lawmakers change the bill to include a provision to protect gun shop owners from potential negligence lawsuits.
“Typically these bills include just a simple paragraph, a couple lines that say that the firearm industry can’t be sued if a suicidal person goes and picks up their firearm. They say, ‘We’re fine, um, we feel well enough to have our firearms back,’ and they go and do harm to themselves.” Lee said. “In that unfortunate event, we just want to make sure that the firearm industry member that again that it’s that person’s possession, they’ve come to ask for it back. We can’t really say no.”
Lee said if such a provision is not added to the bill, the organization would discourage gun shop owners from participating in the grant program. Lawmakers said they would look into whether the provision would be necessary.
The bill received a public hearing in the Senate last week in the Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children and Families committee, which James chairs. He said he believes there is support there. The bill needs to pass the committees before going to the floor of the Senate or Assembly. The bill would then need to be signed by Evers.
Evers included a similar provision to the bill in his 2023-25 executive budget, however it was one of 545 items pulled from the bill by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) last week.
James said funding for the bill would need to come in the next state budget, which is currently being debated by the JFC, and he plans to introduce a motion during the process.
A fiscal estimate also says that the DHS would need one full-time employee to work on coordinating the program. James told the committee that he didn’t know whether that would be included in the motion that’s presented to the JFC.
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F05%2F10%2Fbipartisan-bill-would-give-grants-to-gun-shop-owners-to-support-suicide-prevention%2F by Baylor Spears