Crime and Justice

Activists point to need for ‘red flag’ gun laws after Newbury shooting

James Perry Jr., 70, of Newbury was taken into custody after a standoff May 4 in connection with a fatal shooting. State police photo

This story by Anna Merriman was first published May 5 in the Valley News.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday said that a 38-year-old Newbury woman died from shotgun wounds to the head and torso, and that her death is a homicide, according to a news release from Vermont State Police.

Gun-safety advocates said the death of Karina Rheaume, who was allegedly shot by her father after she went to check on him and bring him food on Monday afternoon, was further evidence that Vermont’s gun laws need to be strengthened, especially in keeping guns out of the hands of people who may be behaving erratically.

“Other countries have mental health problems but not firearm deaths,” said Woodstock resident Bob Williamson, a board member for GunSense Vermont. “In order to address firearm suicides and tragedies, we need to deal with the means.”

Rheaume’s father, James Perry Jr., pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault and reckless conduct in her death and is being held without bail. Perry, 70, told police he shot his daughter because he believed his family was going to kill him, and he was worried his daughter was “being used as a ploy” to allow dangerous people into his home, according to a police affidavit.

Perry’s son, James Perry III, later told police that his father’s mental health had been deteriorating recently, according to the affidavit.

A message with questions on the shooting left for Orange County State’s Attorney Dickson Corbett was not returned Wednesday.

However, the shooting — as described by police — bears similarities to another recent incident in the Upper Valley where an older gun owner shot a family member. In 2019, a 77-year-old man diagnosed with dementia was accused of shooting and killing his wife in Newport, N.H., but the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office opted not to bring charges, citing concerns about his legal competency.

Vermont is one of 19 states — which do not include New Hampshire — that have Emergency Risk Protection Order laws, or “red flag laws.” Those laws allow prosecutors to petition a court to issue a protection order barring a person from having or obtaining a firearm if they are deemed a risk.

“It seems to me this would be the textbook case for why we need strong (red flag) laws,” Williamson said, pointing to the Newbury case. He argued that families, rather than just the attorney general and other prosecutors, should be able to petition for such orders in Vermont, as they can in other states.

“Vermont’s gun problem is in large-number domestic violence and suicides,” he said.

He said more stringent red flag laws would not infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment right, since they won’t prevent most people from obtaining guns to hunt or for personal protection.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu last year vetoed red flag legislation in the Granite State, citing constitutional concerns.

The Vermont chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness supports strong red flag laws as long as they “focus on specific, current behaviors and evidence-based risk factors for violence,” but warn against laws that may further stigmatize people with mental illnesses.

NAMI Vermont’s Executive Director Laurie Emerson said the state’s red flag law was passed after a threat of gun violence at a school. She also said that data has shown that older men have a higher risk for death by suicide.

However, Emerson said she is supportive of many gun safety measures, including keeping guns locked in a safe, which she said can be an extra step to prevent people from impulsively shooting themselves or others.

“It’s very rare that someone with mental illness goes out and commits violence against other people,” Emerson said. “It’s almost stigmatizing mental illness when people say we need to restrict people with mental illnesses from owning guns.”

However, Emerson said she supports many gun safety measures, including keeping guns locked in a safe, which she said can be an extra step to prevent people from impulsively shooting themselves or others.

Proponents of the Second Amendment and gun owners’ rights say the conversation over gun control in light of Monday’s shooting is misguided.

“From our perspective, we already have plenty of gun control,” said Eric Davis, president of the Gun Owners of Vermont, adding that gun control activists look to tighten gun laws following seemingly every fatal shooting. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction. … It’s never good to pass any legislation on a knee-jerk reaction.”

Instead of focusing on regulating gun ownership and possession, Davis said, people should focus more on systemic issues regarding why people act out violently.

“Americans have a sort of problem with the violence epidemic. It’s the same as the heroin epidemic or the obesity epidemic,” Davis said. “This is a deeply rooted psychological and sociological issue.”

State Sen. Joe Benning, the Lyndon Republican whose Caledonia Senate district includes Newbury, said Vermont should not take up laws that challenge the Second Amendment unless the Constitution changes.

“I have a strong opinion that we should hang on to that document in shape and form,” said Benning, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Unless and until the Constitution is changed, I have a legal and ethical and moral responsibility to uphold it.”

However, he said, there are other ways to address such tragedies without further regulating guns, such as addressing mental health issues before they rise to a level of violence.

“I feel terrible for the family and it is a striking statement about the state of our mental health system and the ability to care for people,” Benning said. “I have to question whether there were other ways to avoid this tragedy without it being an afterthought. … What didn’t happen that could have and should have happened before this poor woman was killed?”

A future court date has not been announced for Perry’s case.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Emerson’s characterization of Vermont’s “red flag” law and the risks involving older gun-owners.

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