Community members shared their views Tuesday on a new piece of legislation before the Montgomery County Council that would require firearms retailers to provide suicide prevention literature upon purchase. While most speakers supported the measure, a couple voiced concerns about infringement on gun shop owners’ First Amendment rights.
In Maryland, 42% of all suicides are committed with a firearm and suicides make up 36% of all firearm deaths in the state, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The SAFE Act, sponsored by Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large) would require the Department of Health and Human Services to “develop literature about firearm safety, suicide prevention, and conflict resolution” and “require sellers of firearms or ammunition to display and distribute the literature at points of sale,” according to the draft legislation.
Retailers are not required to speak with customers about the information in the pamphlets, according to the draft of the legislation. The county will pay for the pamphlets and there is no financial requirement of firearms retailers. Any retailer that does not comply with the distribution regulation may be issued a civil citation.
The majority of speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing in Rockville voiced strong support for the legislation.
Beata Stylianos, an advocate with Everytown for Gun Safety, shared that she lost her husband to firearms suicide. She said issuing this literature is no different than putting health warnings on tobacco products, and should be normalized.
“Nearly six out of every 10 gun deaths in the United States are self-inflicted. Across all suicide attempts without a gun only 4% result in death. However, when a gun is involved, that figure skyrockets to 90%,” Stylianos said, citing an Everytown study. “This ordinance is a vital step to ensure families in Montgomery County are made aware of the connection between gun suicides and easy access to gun.”
Alyssa Sanders, a county resident and director of advocacy for EveryMind, a mental health nonprofit, said her organization has seen firsthand how often suicide is prevented when a person struggling with suicidal ideation is simply provided with other options. She said the SAFE Act would do this as well.
“Mental health issues remain highly stigmatized, making it very difficult for individuals to seek help when needed, including materials that promote open discussions about mental health,” Sanders said. “Statistics and stories highlight the fact that information, education, access to resources and time can save a life.”
Regina Schneider, a county resident and Atlantic Guns co-owner, voiced strong opposition to the bill. Schneider said she is a mental health advocate, and that she and her husband already distribute suicide prevention literature in their gun shop. However, she is concerned about the penalties retailers could face.
“This mandates that we must provide information we already make available to our customers and authorizes the county to charge us with a potential criminal violation that includes hefty fines and potentially jail time if someone forgets to hand a customer a brochure,” Schneider said. “[Firearms retailers] should not be subjected to this tremendous burden and potential risks.”
Community member Gabriel Kluth also expressed distaste for the bill, citing First Amendment concerns.
“Even if the proposed literature is masterfully written and venerated for years to come, still as a matter of principle, forcing people to display government-issued literature, contrary to their will, is abridging the freedom of speech and expression,” Kluth said.
A similar law was enacted in Anne Arundel County last year. However, the legislation was challenged by a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the law on First Amendment grounds. The suit was brought forth by Maryland Shall Issue, a nonprofit pro-Second Amendment and gun owners’ rights organization.
While a District Court judge ruled in the county’s favor, saying that the literature was a reasonable suicide prevention measure and not a violation of First Amendment rights. Maryland Shall Issue appealed the case, which now is scheduled for a December hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
The bill is scheduled for a Health and Human Services Committee work session on Nov. 13. A vote has not been scheduled.
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