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

In Cases Of 'Extreme Risk', Vermont Senate Votes To Take Away 'Right To Bear Arms'

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, seen here on the Senate floor in a 2016 file photo.
Angela Evancie
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VPR file
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, seen here on the Senate floor in a 2016 file photo, says the bill approved by the Vermont Senate Wednesday could prevent acts of gun violence.

As lawmakers nationwide consider new ways to get guns out of the hands of dangerous people, the Vermont Senate has advanced a bill that would make it easier for police to seize firearms from people who pose an "extreme risk" to themselves or others.

Audio for this story will be posted.

When Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears began putting together a bill known as S.221 last fall, he says he didn't have terribly high hopes for the legislation.

"It's been an incredible journey the last couple of weeks on this bill," Sears said on the Senate Floor Wednesday. "I never expected to actually get to the floor, to tell you the truth, when I introduced it."

But the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this month - and the alleged near-miss at Fair Haven Union High School the day after - have dramatically shifted the politics of guns in Montpelier.

18-year-old Jack Sawyer, of Poultney, enters Rutland Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon wearing handcuffs.
Credit Glenn Russell / Burlington Free Press / Pool
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Burlington Free Press / Pool
18-year-old, Jack Sawyer, of Poultney, is accused of plotting to cause mass casualties at Fair Haven Union High School. Sen. Dick Sears says the alleged plot quote - jolted us all.

And so on Wednesday afternoon, Senate lawmakers gave unanimous support to legislation that Sears believes could prevent acts of gun violence in the future.

"The one thing I'm sure of is, Vermont's not immune," Sears says. "And I think we knew that before Fair Haven. But I think Fair Haven jolted us all."

The legislation is modeled after statutes that have already been enacted in five other states. It would allows state's attorneys or the attorney general to get a court order to seize firearms from someone they think poses an "extreme risk."

Gun bills are generally divisive affairs in the Statehouse.

Not so with S.221, which won the backing of gun rights groups, and earned preliminary approval on the Senate floor by a 30-0 vote.

Republican Sen. Randy Brock, who prides himself on his A-plus rating from the NRA, says the reason the bill is so popular is that it isn't actually a gun control measure. "It's focused on the problem and not the means," says Brock.

Brock-swearing-in-vpr-alfin-johnson-20180109.jpg
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
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VPR
Sen. Randy Brock, right, being sworn in during the opening of the Legislature in Jan. 2018.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, also a Republican, says the bill answers the loud public cry for legislative action, without violating Vermonters' right to bear arms, or rights against illegal search and seizure.

"We have a historic opportunity at this moment in time to demonstrate to the world that this bill accomplishes something aimed at root of the cause that we are concerned about," Benning says.

The extreme risk bill is the first of several gun bills lawmakers will be taking up this year. The Senate is expected to vote later this week on a measure that would require federal background checks for the private gun sales.

As for Sears' S.221, the bill will now go to the House for its consideration after Senate lawmakers give final approval Thursday.

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