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Background Check Provision Of Gun Bill Hits Snag

Angela Evancie
Bennington Sen. Dick Sears chairs the Judiciary Committee

A controversial effort to expand background checks on gun sales in Vermont has hit a major snag.

Gun-safety advocates are pushing lawmakers to require background checks for sales of firearms at gun shows and over the internet. But Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says prospects for the measure are dim.

“I don’t believe that the background check portion of the bill has the votes in this committee to pass out of this committee,” Sears said Tuesday.

The inability to muster a majority vote in Sears’ five-person committee will present a serious stumbling block to advocates for the legislation. After being introduced earlier this month, the bill was referred to Sears’ committee. And that means it needs an affirmative vote from the panel before it can proceed to the next phase of the legislative process.

Sears’ opposition to expanded background checks, however, doesn’t mean the bill is dead.  

The controversial gun legislation would also try to make it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns, by requiring courts here to add to a national gun background-check database the names of individuals found to be a danger to themselves or someone else. And the bill would also make it illegal under state law for a violent felon to possess a firearm.

Sears says those provisions might have broader support. Sears says it’s already illegal under federal law for violent felons to possess a gun. But he says the lack of a parallel law on the books in Vermont leaves local law enforcement authorities without a tool they might otherwise be able to use to improve public safety.

“I’m not suggesting we’re wedded to particular statute, but I’ve talked to enough local police ... and prosecutors who might want the ability to prosecute certain people who are possessing firearms,” Sears says.

Most state and local police aren’t authorized to enforce federal statutes.

Proponents of the background check provision could theoretically sidestep Sears’ committee altogether, by creating a separate bill, and trying to get it to the Senate floor by voting it out of a committee more amenable to expanded background checks.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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