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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

The Race Is On To Advance Gun Legislation

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears is looking to modify Vermont's domestic terrorism laws as a way to deal with future cases of violence
Angela Evancie
VPR File
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D - Bennington, is a key player in any new firearms legislation.

Lawmakers are making a final effort to push gun legislation through the committee process ahead of a Friday deadline, but significant hurdles remain.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began considering new legislation Wednesday that would prohibit a person convicted of a violent crime from possessing a firearm. Crimes in the proposal include the state’s so-called "listed" crimes — more than 30 serious offenses with hefty prison terms and fines. The proposal also includes any offense involving sexual exploitation of a minor and trafficking of certain drugs.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said 49 other states have a similar law on the books.

Some crimes could be removed from the list, however, after concern was raised that not all should disqualify a person from owning a firearm.

“I have issues with some of the things that are on the list of crimes,” said Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor.

Gone from the discussion is the most controversial component of a previous bill considered by the committee — background checks for private gun sales. Instead, the committee is considering new language — and a new bill — that focuses on making it a violation of state law for felons to possess firearms.

The effort to reframe the debate without the background check provision is being lead by Senate President  John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison.

Both lawmakers were cosponsors of S.31 earlier this session. That bill was abandoned following extreme opposition from gun rights advocates who were furious about the proposed expansion of background checks.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee has crafted language that would require Vermont courts to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when someone is determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others. That, too, was a component of S.31.

Ayer presented the proposal to the Judiciary Committee Wednesday and asked that it be added to the bill it is now considering.

“We hope that you’ll include it in the bill rather than have us amend it from the floor like it’s an afterthought,” she said.

Through testimony, Ayer said her committee found that reporting in other states to a federal mental health database has “reduced gun violence somewhat.” She said reporting would be limited to those who are determined to be a danger by a court, those who are found not responsible for a crime by reason of insanity, and those who are incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness and are committed to the Department of Mental Health.

“We agree that those specific people should be on the database because the evidence suggests that they are more likely to commit gun violence,” she said.

The proposal, Ayer said, also creates a system that would allow for people to be removed from the database. They could petition the court to order their name be removed after five years if the court finds they are no longer a danger, she said.

“We thought that we should have a process here in Vermont. People get better. They’re not mentally ill for life,” Ayer said.

But questions about whether the law would be retroactive went unanswered Wednesday. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said the Judiciary Committee will need to clarify the intent of the law and clearly state if people already adjudicated by a court and found to be a danger to themselves or others must be reported. Not doing so will create legal problems, he warned.

“That’s where legal problems will start,” he said. “You’re going to cause litigation.”

Sears had hoped to take testimony from a U.S. attorney in Vermont and a Federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent on the proposal Wednesday, but was told that they are unlikely to testify. He said it was “disappointing” they were unwilling to answer questions for lawmakers about the federal law that bans felons from possessing weapons.

“I guess they’re afraid of the question, ‘Why aren’t you prosecuting these cases?’” Sears said.

Whether the the proposals taken up Wednesday by the committee will clear Friday’s legislative deadline remains unknown. Sears said he plans to take more testimony Thursday, particularly on the mental health component, which appeared to anger Campbell, who said he wants to ensure the bill to moves forward.

But Sears, whose opposition to the background checks in S.31 helped scuttle it, offered two choices — the committee can take testimony and then consider adding the Health and Welfare Committee’s language, or skip testimony and force Ayer and other supporters to try and add it to the legislation on the Senate floor if it makes it that far.

Sears told Campbell it remains possible the legislation will not meet the Friday deadline.

“There are bills that probably aren’t going to make it. This one is a high priority, but I can’t promise you that we have three votes,” Sears said.

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and reprinted under a partnership with the bureau.

Neal is a a reporter for the Vermont Press Bureau. He also files reports for Vermont Public Radio.
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