By Alan J. Keays
The words of a Poultney teenager charged in a thwarted school shooting plot resonated in the small room as a Senate panel advanced a bill Friday, Feb. 23, allowing authorities to seize a firearm from a person deemed a risk to themselves or others.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5 to 0 to adopt S.221, a measure that establishes a civil court process for law enforcement to restrict some people from possessing firearms for up to 60 days if they are determined to pose an imminent “extreme threat.”
The bill now heads to the Senate floor for a vote this week, possibly as early as Tuesday, Feb. 27. Later this week, senators are expected to take up another piece of gun legislation calling for universal background checks before private sales of firearms in Vermont.
To illustrate the importance of the S.221, Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, read from a police affidavit explaining the arrest last week of Jack Sawyer, 18, who police said threatened to cause “mass casualties” at Fair Haven Union High School.
Sawyer’s words in the affidavit come from a text message exchange police say he had in the days before his arrest with a friend, who has since been identified in media reports as Angela McDevitt, age 17, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Sawyer, according to the affidavit, had just told McDevitt (identified as A.M.) that he had recently stopped taking college courses at a school in Maine. This exchange followed:
A.M: “why no you had such a great future come on jack”
Sawyer: “I still do. I haven’t wanted a culinary future for months anyways. Back in VT I’m trying to start fresh. Just a few days ago I was still plotting on shooting up my old high school so it’s not really like I really wanted a future anyways. Rn I’m seeing what I can do here and if I like it so as of now I’m going to try to live here and get an apartment and shit and manage”
Sears said the messages showed a troubled teenager waffling between plotting to commit a violent act and planning and seeing a future for himself.
“I don’t know what will come from all this, as the case moves on,” Sears said, drawing a line from Sawyer to the bill. “What we’re talking about here is troubled people, who might, if given the opportunity to stop and think about what they’re doing, might just do the right thing.”
The bill gives authorities the ability to act in situations involving someone planning to commit domestic violence or suicide, or a person set on carrying out a rampage, such as a school shooting.
“I actually expect it’s going to make a big difference in reducing Vermont gun deaths from suicide as well as reducing Vermont problems and even deaths from domestic violence,” Sears said of the legislation.
“Hopefully, it will never be used for a shooter in a school,” he added, “but if it needs to be, it will be available.”
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center, testified in favor of S.221 on Friday before the Senate committee.
Bell told the panel of her experience treating young patients in the medical center’s intensive care unit who are victims of assaults and suicide attempts.
“In both of these situations, the presence of a gun can mean the difference between life and death,” she said.
Bell also read from the police affidavit in the Sawyer case. She highlighted a separate text message exchange between Sawyer and McDevitt.
A.M: “don’t you need a license to shoot”
Sawyer: “Not to target practice. To hunt, yeah, a hunting license.”
A.M.: “oooh. Maybe for now you should get rid of the shotgun if people are suspicious just so you’re in the extra clear”
Sawyer: “No not at all. This is Vermont like literally every body pm has a gun and it’s perfectly legal and everything. I just won’t tell anybody and I’ll lay low about everything even though I don’t plan on doing anything bad, I just don’t draw attention to myself.”
A.M.: “yeah but what if you get impulsive and want to do something bad. If guns handy your more subject to make a bad decision”
“This is a teenager who has insight into impulsive behavior and understands that access to lethal means can result in tragedy,” Bell said. “This is exactly what the evidence shows: limiting access to lethal means saves lives.”
It was that 17-year-old girl who reported her text conversation with Sawyer to police who say their ensuing investigation uncovered his plot to shoot up his former high school in Vermont.
“In addition to this brave young woman, we’ve seen incredible maturity and courage from our teenagers here in Vermont and across the nation on the issue of gun safety,” Bell said.
“They should not be left to shoulder this burden alone. We can help by passing legislation that focuses on what we know works: limiting access to guns among high risk individuals.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s action Friday advancing S.211 comes a day after Gov. Phil Scott said “everything is on the table” when it comes to gun legislation.
The governor has said the school shooting last week in Florida that left 17 people dead, as well as the chilling details in the police affidavit in Sawyer’s alleged plot in Vermont, had “jolted” him, causing a fundamental change in his position on gun control.
The Republican governor had previously opposed changes to tighten Vermont’s laws. He now says he supports the measures moving forward in S.211, and is open to the idea of universal background checks and restrictions on high-capacity gun magazine sales.
On Friday, Sears said that just last fall he thought moving forward with a bill like S.221 would be one of the most difficult legislative tasks of his 25-year career in the Senate.
“I said, ‘There goes my support from the gun owners,’” the committee chair recalled.
However, recent events have changed the landscape, he said.
Sears added that input from gun rights organizations helped in the process of crafting the legislation, S.221. “I realize it hasn’t been everything those folks want,” the senator said. “They stayed here and offered positive suggestions through the process. I appreciate that.”
Bill Moore of the Vermont Traditions Coalition then responded to Sears. “I’d say a thanks too, on behalf all the firearms rights groups,” Moore told the committee chair.
“I think this shows this process can be successful in addressing these things,” Moore said. “Hopefully, the success of the mechanism in the field will show that we an address these (issues) without what otherwise would be referred to as gun control.”
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a committee member, said after the vote Friday that the legislation approved by the panel addressed “the root” of a problem without getting wrapped up in politics and emotions.
“We have all worked pretty hard and suffered some pretty horrendous comments from people,” Benning said, “but I’m proud to be a member of this committee.”
Sears agreed, but added that there has been positive feedback as well.
“We’ve also had really touching correspondence from people who have actually been impacted and might have avoided their problem if this bill had been available,” he said.
Photo by Mike Dougherty, VTDigger
Meaghan Filkowski, a Harwood Union High School senior, was one of dozens of students who pressed legislators to tighten gun laws Friday, Feb. 23 at the statehouse. Teens pushed for greater safety measures.