SC lawmaker pitches novel idea to curb gun suicides: a voluntary no-sell weapons list

Gun Rights

COLUMBIA — Despite the attention given to murders and mass shootings committed with firearms, most gun deaths are suicides.

In fact, 54 percent of gun deaths were suicides, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2020.

But a new bill introduced March 15 in the South Carolina Senate aims to reduce that figure by creating a voluntary gun do-not-sell list.

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Those who struggle with thoughts of suicide, which is often an impulse decision, could place themselves on the list and if they attempted to legally purchase a gun their name would be flagged during the background check performed by gun stores.

It would be illegal for the merchant to sell a person on the list a firearm.

“This seems to be a no-brainer,” said Myrtle Beach Republican Sen. Luke Rankin, the bill’s sponsor. “This is one tool to help someone who might have those ideas to protect themselves.”

Individuals 18 and older could apply to the list, which would be maintained by the State Law Enforcement Division, by filling out an online form and submitting it in person with a photo ID at any law enforcement agency in the state.

A person could apply to remove themselves from the do-not-sell list the same way, though there would be a 14-day waiting period.

Three other states, Washington, Virginia and Utah, have passed similar legislation with support from conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats.

A national version of the bill made it out of a House of Representatives committee last session but went no further.

“I think it’s fantastic they’re introducing the bill in South Carolina,” Fredrick Vars, a University of Alabama Law School professor who came up with the do-not-sell list idea a decade ago, told The Post and Courier.

Not only are more than half of suicides carried out with a gun, about 85 percent of suicide attempts with a gun are lethal, research shows. People often survive other methods like intentional overdose.

Additionally, 90 percent of people who survive a serious suicide attempt do not go on to die of suicide, according to Vars.

“There’s a kind of myth that you can’t do anything to prevent a suicide,” he said. “You prevent one attempt with a gun, you don’t just delay suicide, you really save lives.”

Vars, who researches gun violence and has bipolar disorder, said he would put himself on a do-not-sell list if it existed in Alabama. The law is known nationally as “Donna’s Law” after New Orleans woman Donna Nathan, who had bipolar disorder, impulsively purchased a gun legally and killed herself in a matter of hours in 2018. Her daughter teamed up with Vars to advocate for the legislation.

In the states where the law has already been implemented, the number of people who have registered is small. In Utah, five people signed up in the first year it was on the books, according to Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper. Vars, who intermittently requests numbers from the three states with the law, said “dozens” of people have signed up nationally.

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This file photo shows guns on display at a gun store in Miami. A new bill in the state Senate would create a voluntary do-not-sell firearms list for those who struggle with thoughts of suicide. File/Alan Diaz/AP

Vars said South Carolina lawmakers could encourage signups by allowing people to register at doctors’ offices and hospitals, not just police stations. Additionally, advertising the list or requiring the state’s professional medical organizations to inform their members about the program could help get the word out.

“The untapped demand is enormous,” Vars said, pointing to his own research that about half of people who seek psychiatric treatment said they would sign up for a do-not-sell list.

“I think it will save lives the way it’s written. Could it be even better? Sure,” he said.

Rankin stressed the do-not-sell list would not be mandatory, and he hopes to recruit members of the firearms industry to support the bill.

“I have to imagine that if someone is acknowledging to God and to country that they are struggling with suicidal thoughts, that (gun merchants) would embrace the voluntary right of that prospective customer to say, ‘Please don’t sell me a firearm,’” he said.

Leaders of the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Rankin, the powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee where the do-not-sell list bill will be considered, said it’s likely too late in the session to get the bill to the governor’s desk, but he hopes to hold a hearing on it to raise awareness and educate his colleagues.

“If we can prevent even one life from being taken by their own hand, that’s worth our attention,” Rankin said.

If you or a loved one are considering suicide, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

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