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2 Moms Grieving Sons Lost to Suicide Fight for Gun Storage Law — and Win: 'Every Day Is a Battle' (Exclusive)

When tragedies brought them together, Emily Hackett-Fiske and Vermont Rep. Alyssa Black went to work creating life-saving laws

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/angiekingphotography/">Angela King</a></p> Emily Hackett-Fiske and Rep. Alyssa Black. Both lost a child to suicide and now they are fighting for laws to make gun owner responsible if their weapon is not secured.

The nightmare that has consumed Emily ­Hackett-Fiske’s life started with a phone call. She and her husband, Jason, a police officer, were spending time in New Hampshire, two and a half hours from their home in Williston, Vt., when her cell phone rang late one afternoon in September 2020.

A neighbor of a relative — with whom her son Ryan Fortin, 12, was staying for the weekend — informed her that “Ryan was hurt and paramedics were working on him, and that we needed to come back to Vermont,” she recalls. “I told myself that he must have broken his leg or hurt his head.”

Within minutes the couple were racing home at 90 mph while Hackett-Fiske frantically made calls to get more details, but no one would tell her what had happened. After speaking with police and noticing that they weren’t directing her to a hospital, she felt nauseated. “I knew what that meant,” she says. “They were telling me that my son was dead without telling me my son was dead.”

Later that evening, the devastated mother of six learned that her oldest son had taken his life with an unsecured 9-mm pistol that he’d found in the home where he was staying. “He was the most levelheaded kid,” says Hackett-Fiske, who was later told that Ryan had watched an online video on suicide methods minutes before his death. “We’ll never know what led to this impulsive moment — the most impulsive moment Ryan ever had.”

<p>Courtesy Emily Hackett-Fiske</p> "Ryan was one of those kids everyone liked," Emily says of her oldest child (with his siblings in 2018).

Courtesy Emily Hackett-Fiske

"Ryan was one of those kids everyone liked," Emily says of her oldest child (with his siblings in 2018).

Related: Their Son Died of Suicide in the Navy. They’re Honoring His Final Wish by Saving Lives (Exclusive)

Months after her son’s death, the 47-year-old environmental engineer found her way to Vermont house representative Alyssa Black — whose son had also killed himself with a handgun — to try to safeguard the 30 million other children who live in homes with firearms.

Last July Black’s legislation — which creates criminal penalties for the unsecured storage of guns, mandates a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases and allows family and household members to petition courts for temporary gun removal — became law in Vermont.

“The grief is always with you, especially when you lose a child who took their own life,” says Hackett-Fiske. “If my advocacy saves one person, if it stops one parent from experiencing this...that’s why I do it.”

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Memories of Ryan’s adoption from South Korea in 2008 still bring a smile to his mother’s face. “I just wanted to be a mom,” says Hackett-Fiske, who was married to her first husband at the time.

“I was over the moon in love with this kid before he even came home.” The compassionate boy with a zany sense of humor and a stutter had an intensity about him—whether he was learning about sharks, fly-fishing or dribbling a basketball. “He would dive deep into a topic until he learned everything about it,” says Hackett-Fiske. “Then he’d move on.”

<p>Courtesy Emily Hackett-Fiske</p> Ryan Fortin on a hike in 2019.

Courtesy Emily Hackett-Fiske

Ryan Fortin on a hike in 2019.

Ryan was staying with a relative (PEOPLE is not naming the person per Hackett-Fiske’s request) when he used a dining chair to access an unloaded pistol and several rounds from the top shelf of a closet in the home.

“I didn’t even know he knew how to load a gun. We don’t shoot guns at our house,” says Hackett-Fiske. “I learned that he did an online search and found a video about the most effective method for suicide a few minutes before this happened.”

Within months of Ryan’s burial — alongside his favorite basketball jersey and Adidas shoes —Hackett-Fiske was stunned when she learned that the owner of the unsecured gun that killed her son would face no legal consequences.

<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/angiekingphotography/" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Angela King</a></p> The ripple effect never stops rippling,” says Hackett-Fiske (holding a photo of her late son at the Vermont State House on Feb. 23).

Angela King

The ripple effect never stops rippling,” says Hackett-Fiske (holding a photo of her late son at the Vermont State House on Feb. 23).

Related: Gun Violence in American Schools: Unpacking the Most Frequently Asked Questions, and How to Help

“That made me angry,” says Hackett-Fiske, who soon discovered that Vermont had no child-access-prevention (CAP) laws that would have supported charges being filed against the gun owner. “Not that I want to punish anyone, but we’re all adults. If you drink and drive and get caught, you’re punished. This should be no different.”

Her research led her to Black, whose 23-year-old son Andrew had killed himself in 2018 with a handgun that took him only 20 minutes to purchase at a store. Black, a 54-year-old former health care administrator, says that her trauma and desire to change things is “what ended up propelling me into the legislature.”

Black sees their shared experience of losing sons as a type of “superpower” that enabled them to effectively humanize the importance of securing firearms, an issue that often divides people. “When you are able to lay out your pain for public consumption and show the horrific devastation wrought by gun violence,” she says, “people listen, and you can effectively make change.”

<p>Courtesy Alyssa Black</p> He was exceedingly kind to others,” Black says of her son Andrew in 2018, who died by suicide that year.

Courtesy Alyssa Black

He was exceedingly kind to others,” Black says of her son Andrew in 2018, who died by suicide that year.

Related: Man Dies by Suicide After Conversations with AI Chatbot That Became His 'Confidante,' Widow Says

The two mothers felt an instant bond as they worked together on the legislation that both insist is more about addressing a public health issue than about gun control. “I couldn’t ask for a better friend to fight for this with me,” says Hackett-Fiske.

The law that resulted from their efforts will, among other things, hold owners of unsecured firearms used by those 18 or younger in a suicide, crime or accidental death or injury responsible with a fine and up to five years in prison. Although there are no federal CAP laws, Vermont now joins 25 other states and Washington, D.C., in passing safe-storage legislation, a move that Jonathan Singer, a professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work, believes will reduce gun-­related suicides among youth in the state.

“Nine out of 10 suicide attempts with a firearm are lethal,” says Singer. “These laws create a buffer against a suicidal crisis, this impulsive moment when a child is thinking that their only solution to their problem is to kill themselves. It buys the kid some time to access their thinking brain to come up with another alternative to their distress, anger, sadness or loneliness.”

Buoyed by the law’s passage, Hackett-Fiske — who hasn’t been able to summon the strength to go into Ryan’s bedroom since his death three and a half years ago — says that she’s just getting started. Her next goal is to establish laws banning internet content like the video Ryan watched before his death.

“I know people call us suicide-loss survivors,” she says, “but I don’t really see us as survivors. We’re more like warriors — because every day is a battle.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.

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