MONTPELIER — More than 100 gun control advocates packed a State House room Wednesday in support of pending legislation that would expand criminal background checks to gun shows and online gun sales in Vermont.
The legislation is in the process of being drafted and will be co-sponsored by Sens. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison — all members of Senate leadership. Gun Sense Vermont, a gun control advocacy group, held a press conference Wednesday to highlight the legislation and encourage lawmakers to support it.
“In Vermont our laws are leftover from an age gone by, from before there was Internet, before there was an interstate. And because of that, a dangerous loophole exists that allows criminals, domestic abusers and the seriously mentally ill to buy guns with no questions asked,” said Gun Sense cofounder Ann Braden. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we are allowing domestic abusers and felons easy access to weapons.”
At issue for Gun Sense is what they consider a loophole in the state’s gun laws that only require criminal background checks for gun buyers when they purchase from a federally licensed dealer. Buying a gun at a gun show or online requires no such background check.
“Criminals know about these loopholes. It’s up to us to close them so they can’t keep slipping through,” Braden said.
Passing any gun control laws has been difficult, both in Vermont and Washington. In Vermont, Baruth introduced a bill two years ago that would have banned assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.
But it failed spectacularly. Baruth withdrew the legislation just five days after introduction because it lacked support from his colleagues and riled gun rights activists, including Gun Owners of Vermont, a pro-gun organization that is “committed to a no-compromise position on firearms ownership rights,” according to its website.
This bill is entirely different, according to Baruth.
“I think of this as a very narrow, targeted, moderate bill. It’s a very restrained approach to the problem,” he said. “A lot of times gun rights people say, ‘Let’s strengthen the laws we have.’ That’s the way I look at this, it strengthens the law we have.”
Braden and other Gun Sense supporters said closing loopholes is necessary to protect women and children in abusive situations. She said in the 16 states that have passed similar legislation there are 38 percent fewer women who are shot to death by an intimate partner. Non-firearm homicides rates remained the same, she said.
“Guns are for hunting and sport, they are not for intimidating and killing women and children,” Braden said. “It is simple to close this loophole and it is effective.”
The group plans to pressure lawmakers into action. It delivered over 1,000 letters from Vermonters and more than 12,000 signatures to the governor’s office Wednesday. Braden also touted widespread support for expanding background checks, including:
— 81 percent of likely Vermont voters
— 77 percent of Vermont gun owners
— 68 percent of Republicans
— 93 percent of Democrats
— 79 percent of independents
“Vermonters are counting on our lawmakers here in Montpelier to stand with the vast majority of us who support closing this dangerous loophole,” she said.
Campbell said he believes lawmakers will be able to advance the bill this session.
“I think the difficult place is going to be in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “I think that we have a good shot.”
Part of the legislation, which Campbell said he hopes will be introduced by the end of the week, would ensure that people found to be incompetent by a judge would be prevented from purchasing guns at a gun show or online. Campbell, who also works as a prosecutor, said that component is as important as preventing criminals and abusers from obtaining guns.
“I’m not sure I can understand what the objection is to saying, ‘We don’t want somebody who’s been declared mentally incompetent by a court from actually possessing a firearm,’” Campbell said.
The bill will not target responsible hunters and sportsmen, he said.
“We have a tremendous number of men and women in the state who own guns, who are responsible gun owners, and I think they have an absolute right to. I own several guns myself,” Campbell said.
The bill’s first test is likely to come in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, says he is skeptical.
“There are parts of the bill I like and parts of the bill I don’t like,” he said.
Sears said he is supportive of the mental health component, which would allow reporting to federal databases of those with serious mental illness. But expanding background checks may not be appropriate in Vermont, he said.
“We’ll certainly take testimony on background checks,” he said. “I have serious questions about whether background checks will solve any problems in Vermont.”
Baruth said he is confident the legislation will receive fair consideration in the committee, but is likely to see changes before it will pass the Senate.
“I have great respect for their judgment. I have no doubt when they get the bill they’ll give it a fair hearing and if it’s something they think makes sense and can live with, they’ll vote it out of committee,” Baruth said. “I can’t think of a bill that has remained in its original form when the governor signed in, so, yes, in order to get out of the Senate it will no doubt wind up in a different form and then the House will work its will, in turn.”
Should the bill reach the House, Speaker Shap Smith said it will also get fair consideration.
“I think that we’ve got to figure out the problem that we’re trying to solve and then figure out the correct way to solve it. That’s what I’ll want the committee to do,” he said.
Smith said lawmakers will take a close look at how the bill will help in Vermont.
“There are some statistics out there that are troubling, particular around domestic violence. I think that we need to take a look at the statistics and the incidents of violence and domestic violence and then we’ve got to identify the ways that we can most effectively address them,” he said.