It was Frederick Vars’s own experience with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts that first got him interested in the idea of letting people ban themselves from buying guns.
To him, the idea of a voluntary do-not-sell list as a preemptive option for people worried about what they might do in darker moments of irrationality seemed like common sense. But would anyone use it?
To answer that question, Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama, and a team of researchers surveyed 200 psychiatric patients. That 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association of Suicidology, found that 46 percent of respondents said they would sign up for a do-not-sell list.
“That was a moment where for me it went from kind of an academic idea into realizing that if you could get a lot of people signing up you really have a chance to save a lot of lives,” Vars said in an interview.
In Virginia, it’s not just an idea anymore.
This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly passed legislation creating the Virginia Voluntary Do Not Sell Firearms List, making Virginia one of the first states to put Vars’s concept into practice. Because the legislation had a delayed effective date, the list – which will tie into the existing background check system – is scheduled to be up and running in the summer of 2021.
The bill didn’t receive as much attention as other high-profile gun restrictions that took effect last week, like universal background checks, a one-handgun-a-month policy and a red flag law that lets authorities temporarily seize guns from troubled people. But some supporters see it as unique, pitching it as a libertarian-friendly way to address a form of gun violence that’s far more common than the mass shootings that make worldwide headlines.
“It’s voluntary. It’s not the government taking away your rights,” Vars said. “It’s you making that decision.”
Nearly two-thirds of Virginia gun deaths are suicides, according to the Virginia Department of Health data presented to policymakers last year. From 2007 to 2018, more than 56 percent of suicides involved guns. In 2018, there were 674 gun-related suicides in the state. The state data shows most firearm suicides involve handguns, and White men are more likely to be victims of gun suicide than other demographic groups.
The new law will allow anyone over 18 to add themselves to the list, designed to be kept confidential, by filling out a form with a copy of their photo ID and mailing it or delivering it to the Virginia State Police. Once a person is on the list, it will be against the law for them to purchase or possess a gun and unlawful for anyone to knowingly sell or give a gun to a person on the list. If someone on the list changes their mind, they can be removed after waiting 21 days.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.