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Domestic Violence

New Data Adds Another Strike Against Vermont’s Reputation as a Gun-Filled, Violence-Free Oasis

A state lauded for its lack of gun restrictions also has an ugly and often lethal history with domestic violence involving firearms.

The great liberal enclave of Vermont — tie-dyed, hemp-loving Vermont, heartland of organic agriculture and headquarters of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign — is nobody’s first idea of NRA country. So it can be jarring for the uninitiated to discover the state’s extensive and well-earned reputation as a gun lover’s paradise

The state’s firearms law are so lax, in fact, Guns & Ammo rated Vermont as the second-best state in the country for gun owners. National pundits have also been quick to note that the abundance of deadly weapons hasn’t led to a wave of bloodshed. In National Review, conservative commentator Charles C.W. Cooke proclaimed the state “safe and happy and armed to the teeth,” noting that its loose restrictions on ownership coexist with the lowest incarceration rate of any state in the country. Another author has remarked that “you never hear of massacres in Vermont. The state feels about as safe and wholesome as any place in the world.”

All of which is belied by the fact that Vermont does face a dilemma of gun violence, one that carries a grisly association with domestic violence. This month, the Violence Policy Center released the newest iteration of its continuing study tracking the number of women murdered in the United States by men. As it turns out, Vermont has the eighth-highest rate of any state, with 1.58 victims killed per 100,000 people. Of those slain by men they knew, three-quarters were intimates (wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends) of their killers, and two-thirds were shot to death.

Because of the state’s tiny population, the quantity of victims represented by the rates in the study are small: The total number of women murdered by men in the state was just five in 2013, the year covered by the VPC’s most recent data, and only two were killed with guns. What’s more, Vermont didn’t appear in the top ten of any other recent editions of the annual study. A one-time surge in killings, combined with a small sample size, could be playing havoc with the numbers. But those caveats aside, a review of other research supports the original takeaway: Vermont has an ugly and often lethal history with domestic violence involving firearms.

According to the state-issued Domestic Violence Fatality Commission Review Report, half of the 237 adult homicides committed in Vermont between the years 1994 and 2013 were related to domestic violence. Fifty-six percent of adult domestic violence homicides during that time were committed with firearms. And although gun-related domestic violence isn’t always fatal, assaults committed with guns are twelve times more likely to kill their victims than those involving other weapons or bodily force.

There is another tragic layer to gun violence in Vermont. In almost every year since 1990, the state has suffered a higher suicide rate than the country at large — a number that has continued to climb recently — and well over half of its suicides are committed via firearm. And the grim harvest of its weapon surplus can’t even be properly contextualized by looking at in-state numbers, since it’s also a northeastern hub of gun trafficking.

Again, in universal terms, the total number of homicides, domestic violence cases, and gun-related deaths is indeed small, which can make some of these rate statistics seem exaggerated. But the argument can be made that they’re also less deceptive than the happy reports of a Second Amendment oasis in the heart of New England. A truer picture lies in this final statistic: Vermont, which is virtually impossible to traverse without a car, is a state where firearms deaths outnumber traffic deaths.

[Photo: Flickr user Nicholas Erwin]