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

In Montpelier, Not All Gun Bills Prove Divisive

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears wants the Senate to vote on a "Tax and Regulate" marijuana bill in the near future
Peter Hirschfeld
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears says he believes the gun bills on which lawmakers generally agree will do more for public safety than the gun legislation that has been more divisive.

S.55, a piece of firearms legislation, has quickly become the most divisive issue in Montpelier. But not all the proposed gun measures under consideration this year are proving so controversial.

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On Thursday, House and Senate lawmakers are set to hold votes on two bills — known as S.221 and H.422 — that would give courts and police officers new authority to seize guns from people they deem to be a threat to themselves or others.

Both are expected to win broad tri-partisan support:

“So while we have sharp differences on S.55 … I want to just emphasize where there’s tremendous agreement on at least two … bills that will help really protect Vermonters,” Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears said Thursday.

S.55 remains a source of deep divide in the Statehouse, where House lawmakers held an impassioned debate over its key provisions Tuesday.

That legislation would require background checks for private gun sales, raise the minimum wage for buying a gun to 21, and ban the sale or purchase of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds (that provision would allow 15-round magazines for handguns).

The House ultimately approved S.55. The legislation is scheduled for a final vote in the Senate, Friday.

H.422 — "An act relating to removal of firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic assault."

But as that piece of legislation continues to divide, other bills have more unified support.

One of those measures — H.422 — would allow police to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of an alleged domestic assault.

If a police officer sees guns in plain view at the scene of an alleged domestic assault and believes those guns pose a threat to the alleged victim, the officer could seize the weapons without a court order.

The bill requires that the suspect be arraigned in court the next business day. If a judge finds probable cause that an assault occurred, the seizure order could be continued.

“Or, if there’s no probable cause, the firearms that were seized would be returned within three days to the individual,” Sears says.

The version of the bill the House passed last year would have allowed police to search the entire home for firearms without a warrant, and also did not require a speedy arraignment.

See how members of the Vermont House voted on H.422.

Sears says the Senate’s version “protects the due process of the individual, but at the same time protect the victim from future harm.”

Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, says her committee appreciates the due process considerations added by the Senate.

“And I think it’s a very strong bill now,” Grad says. “I’m very happy.”

Domestic violence awareness advocates are also on board with the Senate changes.

“We think this is definitely a significant step forward in homicide prevention,” says Auburn Watersong, with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a pro-gun group that has led the opposition against S.55, says it has some lingering due process concerns with H.422, but that it will not actively oppose it.

S.221 — "An act relating to establishing extreme risk protection orders"

The House, meanwhile, will be taking up another gun violence prevention bill Thursday.

S.221, which already passed the Senate unanimously, would allow police to seek a court order to seize firearms from anyone deemed to pose an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.

The House made one significant change to the Senate bill, instead of a maximum seizure length of 60 days, courts could order the removal of guns from a person for up to six months.

H.675 — "An act relating to conditions of release prior to trial."

Sears and Grad say a third bill up for consideration in the coming days — H.675 — will also improve gun safety in Vermont.

That legislation would allow a judge to order a defendant not possess firearms, as a condition of their release.

It would also create a new felony crime for possessing firearms in a school with the intention to do harm.

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