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

Senate Gives Resounding Approval To Controversial Gun Bill

Peter Hirschfeld
Senators Dick Sears, left, and John Rodgers debate a gun bill Wednesday that aims to keep guns out of the hands of violent felons and mentally unstable individuals. The Senate approved the bill, which gun rights advocates will look to stall in the House.

The Vermont Senate Wednesday gave overwhelming approval to a controversial bill that aims to keep guns out of the hands of violent felons and mentally unstable individuals. But Second Amendment activists will look to stall the legislation in the House.

The long-awaited floor debate over the gun bill finally arrived Wednesday afternoon. And Bennington Sen. Dick Sears suggested to his colleagues that this incendiary legislation boils down to a simple question of policy.

“I guess … the basic question of this bill is, are there some people who you as a body, through our vote, believe should not be possessing firearms?” Sears said.

The Senate answered that question with an emphatic yes, as a two-thirds majority voted in favor of legislation that would make it illegal, under state law, for violent felons and drug traffickers to possess a firearm.

The bill would also try to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed by a court to be a danger to themselves or others, by requiring their names to be uploaded into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That’s the system that flags ineligible buyers when federally licensed dealers run a background check prior to completing a transaction.

The legislation was long ago stripped of a far more controversial provision that would have required background checks for sales of firearms at gun shows, or over the Internet.

Darin Goens, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association who was sent to Vermont to work against the gun bill here, said the removal of the expanded background checks was a more significant development than the passage of the remaining provisions.

“Listen, at the end of the day from the bill that was originally proposed to this, I mean the other side I think that they’re agenda has been rejected. And on that note, we’re happy,” Goens said.

But intense opposition remains to a bill that detractors say will lead to more gun control legislation in the future. Essex-Orleans Sen. John Rodgers, a Democrat, called the legislation an attack on Vermont’s gun culture and sportsman heritage.

He said the legislation in Vermont is part of a national gun-control movement that has targeted individual states. And he said incremental changes in this bill are designed to open up the door to more expansive legislation in the future.

“I, for one, was born here and brought up in a gun culture,” Rodgers said. “Others who move to Vermont because they like the culture are welcome. And others who have stated that they want to change our culture here may want to seek a place that has a culture that they like.”

Ann Braden is head of GunSense Vermont, the group spearheading the push for gun control legislation. She said after the vote that her organization won’t seek to have the background checks added back on to the bill in the House this year.

“We’re focused just on this bill, moving this bill through, not adding on additional things, making sure this bill gets through,” she said.

And she says the pared-down version is a still a major victory that will improve public safety.

“Well, I think if you look at the types of people who are being discussed, we have violent felons, we have domestic abusers, we have people who have adjudicated by a court as a danger to themselves or others. These are all people who the consensus is shouldn’t have a gun,” she said.

Senate President John Campbell, who adopted the gun bill as one of his major policy goals this year, said the vote count spotlights the appetite in Vermont for what he calls common-sense gun-control measures.

“And I think that this demonstrated that we in the Legislature can deal with an issue such as one dealing with guns, and that it can get a wider support than what some people would have thought before,” Campbell said.

Campbell, however, said the background checks component likely won’t become politically feasible unless one influential constituency drops its opposition.

“It would be difficult for Vermont to enact the background checks the way it was introduced because of lack of support from law enforcement,” Campbell said. “If you can’t have them support the background checks, then you’re never going to be able to pass a bill like that.”

House Speaker Shap Smith has said he supports the Senate bill, and that it looks to have a clear path through the House.

Evan Hughes, a lobbyist for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his organization will be working to convince House lawmakers that the bill isn’t necessary.

“Vermont is consistently one of the very lowest violent crime rate states in the nation. We constantly have one for the best gun safety records. And we are not a major source of guns to other states,” Hughes said.

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican who supported the legislation, said he thinks the bill needs to be tweaked, so as to not unduly infringe on the Second Amendment rights of people adjudicated by a court to be a danger to themselves or others.

The legislation as passed Wednesday would force those individuals to wait 18 months after the court ruling to petition for reinstatement of their ability to carry a firearm.

The Senate approved the bill by a 20-8 count. No votes came from: Rutland Sens. Brian Collamore, Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin; Franklin Sens. Dustin Degree and Norm McAllister; Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza; and Essex-Orleans Sens. John Rodgers and Bobby Starr.

Rodgers, Starr and Mazza were the only Democrats to vote against the bill.

Addison Sen. Claire Ayer and Washington Sen. Bill Doyle weren’t present for the vote.

The Senate will hold a final vote on the legislation Wednesday.

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