MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to new gun restrictions by a 20 to 8 vote that will make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms and require that people determined by a court to be in need of mental health treatment be reported to a federal database.
Wednesday’s vote followed months of behind the scenes political machinations and some public spats as advocates and opponents of the new gun measures tried to gain the upper hand. Advocates, including Gun Sense Vermont, which strongly backed the bill, claimed success Wednesday.
“I think any time there is a vocal minority it can be a little tricky, but what’s so exciting is how vast, aggressive grassroots support has really changed the landscape. It’s meaningful because, finally, common sense gun legislation is getting passed,” Gun Sense Executive Director Ann Braden said.
But opponents, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs and the National Rifle Association, also claimed victory because they were able to kill off earlier versions of proposed legislation that included expanded background checks.
“At the end of the day, from the bill that was originally proposed to this, the other side, I think that their agenda has been rejected. On that note we’re happy,” said NRA lobbyist Darin Goens. “If the question was asked on the original bill I think the vote would have been very different.”
Braden said her group will not be looking to restore the background check provision in the House.
“We’re focused just on this bill, not adding on,” she said.
The scaled-back bill passed Wednesday was the result of proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday that the bill looked to clarify a simple point — who should possess a firearm under Vermont state law.
Sears noted that that all of the other states have a similar state-level law that excludes some convicts from possessing firearms, as does the federal government.
“We are the outlier in this particular area. There are no other states at this point,” he said.
A agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a federal prosecutor provided testimony to the Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors “don’t have the time or the resources to prosecute these offenses in federal court,” Sears said.
Under the law, people convicted of so-called “listed crimes,” the most serious crimes in the state, will be restricted from possessing a firearm. The law makes some exceptions for lewd and lascivious behavior, as well as reckless endangerment and other motor vehicle-related crimes. The law also includes crimes involving the selling or trafficking of drugs that carry prison terms of at least 10 years.
The legislation will also require those found by a court to be “in need of treatment” for mental health reasons to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Sears said 38 states require such reporting.
Sears noted that the state of Virginia passed a law requiring such reporting following a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.
“I would hate for Vermont to wait for such a tragedy,” he said.
Much of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday centered on how and when a person could have their right to possess a firearm restored after being reported to the database. The Senate approved an amendment that would allow a person to seek restoration of their right after 18 months, if they were found by a court to no longer be in need of treatment.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, sought passage of an amendment that would have eliminated a waiting period altogether, but it was defeated on a voice vote.
“This is a constitutionally delineated right,” Benning said. “My concern is that once you have had a constitutional right removed it should not be your problem to try and get it back.”
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, voiced opposition to the bill, fearing that it will be altered as it makes its way through the House. He asked why an existing state law that makes it a crime for people to possess a firearm while committing a crime is not enough.
“The key word is “while committing another crime,” Sears said, noting that state prosecutors, under the provisions of the bill, would be allowed to prosecute some convicts just for possessing the firearm.
“If you believe that convicted violent felons and drug traffickers …. ought not to have firearms, then I guess that’s how your vote would be. To me, this is a pretty simple policy choice that we’re faced with,” Sears said.
Rodgers also expressed a believe that many gun rights groups have expressed throughout the legislative process, that outside groups were influencing the legislation and encouraging lawmakers to act.
“This is largely driven from outside forces and I believe the Judiciary Committee had some evidence of that in testimony recently,” he said.
Rodgers said the state has a long heritage and tradition of gun ownership and those that disagree with it “may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like.” He made a motion to delay the bill by having it committed to the Appropriations Committee but that effort failed on a voice vote.
The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.
A full story will appear in Thursday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.
Roll call vote results:
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden
Sen. Barbara Snelling, R-Chittenden
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden
Sen. Brian Colamore, R-Rutland
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans