After Parkland Shooting, Protest And A Push For Gun Control In Montpelier

Feb 20, 2018

A bill that would require background checks for private gun sales in Vermont has been stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee since last year, but the legislation could be headed for a vote on the Senate floor even without the committee’s approval.

A majority of the five-person Senate Committee on Judiciary opposes the background check measure, and Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the committee’s chair, says he doesn’t expect the numbers to change before the end of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, however, says the legislation won’t need to make it out of committee in order to get a vote on the Senate floor this year.

“There is pent-up frustration within the caucus on this issue that people want to have an open discussion about it,” Balint says.

While the bill itself — known as S.6 — might remain bottled up in Sears' committee, Balint says she expects the background check provision to be added as an amendment to another piece of legislation.

Balint says she hasn’t yet done a hard vote count on the measure.

“But if I were to take a snapshot today, based on informal conversations I’ve had with people, I think it would squeak by in the Senate,” Balint says. “But people change their minds on the floor, too.”

The procedural wrangling over the controversial firearms bill comes as gun control advocates ramp up their push for legislative action.

"I'm tired of the fear. I'm scared. We need to pass these laws so that ... we are safer, we're safer in society." — Leah Sagan-Dworsky, gun control advocate

The mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last week has sparked gun control rallies across the country. On Tuesday, the movement arrived at the steps of the Vermont Statehouse.

“I don’t want to be afraid anymore,” Leah Sagan-Dworsky, 19, said to the crowd of around 200 people who showed up in Montpelier Tuesday morning to call on lawmakers to pass gun legislation.

“I’m tired. I’m tired of the fear. I’m scared. We need to pass these laws so that ... we are safer, we’re safer in society,” Sagan-Dworsky said.

State lawmakers are considering at least three gun-related measures this year. But Clai Lasher-Sommers, the executive director of Gun Sense Vermont, says the background checks bill is her organization’s biggest legislative priority.

“I believe that every child has a right to live and go to school and feel safe, and that’s not what’s happening across the country and it’s not what’s happening in Vermont,” Lasher-Sommers says.

"I believe that every child has a right to live and go to school and feel safe, and that's not what's happening across the country and it's not wha's happening in Vermont." — Clai Lasher-Sommers, Gun Sense Vermont

Sears says he appreciates the safety concerns that have arisen in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

“Frankly, if I thought that background checks would do anything to help avoid a situation like the one down there, I would vote for it in a second,” Sears says.

Sears, however, notes that the alleged shooter in Parkland passed a background check. He says guns used in other mass shootings have also been purchased through legal avenues, by people who successfully passed background checks.

Instead, Sears says his committee is focused on a bill that would allow police to get a court order to seize a firearm from someone they suspect is dangerous.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who opposes the background check bill, also says there’s no reason to believe an expanded background check law would prevent tragedies like the one in Parkland. Empowering cops to take guns from dangerous people, he says, might.

Benning says his support for that approach intensified after the near-miss at a school in Fair Haven last week, when police arrested a man they suspected of plotting a school shooting.

“Because it demonstrates that police do have situations where they recognize a problem in advance, and can take appropriate steps to interdict where necessary,” Benning says.