Is Vermont’s red flag law working?

Published: May. 18, 2022 at 5:49 PM EDT|Updated: May. 18, 2022 at 6:11 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Mental health and gun policy are under the microscope after revelations that the suspect in this week’s mass shooting in Buffalo was able to purchase a firearm despite New York’s recent red flag law, a measure meant to prevent dangerous people from getting guns. Calvin Cutler reports on how effective Vermont’s four-year-old red flag law has been.

Authorities in Buffalo are still investigating last weekend’s deadly shooting in Buffalo they say was motivated by hate. Despite the suspect being referred to law enforcement and psychologists for an evaluation after making threats a year before, authorities did not invoke the state’s extreme risk prevention law, which would have prevented him from buying a gun.

Vermont’s red flag law was crafted following a foiled school shooting plot in Fair Haven in 2018, but preventing mass shooters is not the only reason for the law. “In Vermont, the two biggest problems are domestic violence and self-harm -- usually suicide -- and to deal with those, the red flag law needs to be used,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

Data from the state judiciary shows that it has. Since January 2020, there were 22 extreme risk protection orders issued. There are 11 active -- one issued before 2020 -- and over half appear to involve ongoing or emerging mental health issues.

It’s an issue that experts say has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Washington County Mental Health Services has 130 people on a waitlist for outpatient therapy. “We want to educate our community to call law enforcement and call mental health because when that call comes in, we will be talking to each other to see how we respond,” said WCMHS’ Mary Moulton.

She says her agency works with area law enforcement to provide crisis care in Vermonters’ homes. And lawmakers say they’ve been trying to bolster the state’s mental health support systems. “Our mental health system is completely frayed right at a time when we have great need,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.

She says the plan is to funnel more money toward community mental health agencies and stand up more programs like WCMHS’ mobile crisis unit in underserved communities. “Whether it’s geographically and it’s an area that has a lot of calls and can’t respond because they don’t have enough staff for their mobile teams,” Donahue said.

The state and law enforcement can monitor for threats, but prosecutors say some of the threats come down to hate and ideology. That’s why they say it’s even more important for people to keep in touch with their neighbors and to say something if they see something. “Vermonters have a good record of being cognizant of risk and making sure that the appropriate people know and can respond, and we need to keep that up,” said Washington County States’ Attorney Rory Thibault.

Vermont lawmakers this session passed a bill waiving medical privacy rules so that doctors can talk to police about their patients.

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