By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
A landmark bill that would make a series of significant changes to the state’s gun laws has received final approval from Vermont’s General Assembly.
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, says he intends to sign that bill as well as two others that introduce new gun control measures.
The passage Friday, March 30, of the sweeping changes to the state’s gun laws comes on the heels of final approval earlier in the day of two separate bills that allow police to seize firearms in dangerous situations.
Scott, speaking Friday afternoon to reporters shortly after action by the Senate, said that a foiled school shooting plot in Fair Haven and the chilling details in a police affidavit of how a teen allegedly intended to carry it out, showed that Vermont was not immune from such violence.
“It’s changed, we have to acknowledge that,” Scott said. “I read the affidavit and came to the conclusion that the Vermont that I knew, that close-knit community, where nothing of this nature could ever happen, was going to [happen].”
He added that he understood that many Vermonters, including past supporters, would be disappointed with his actions in signing the bills.
Earlier, the Senate voted 17-13 to “concur” with a House version of S.55, a bill that expands background checks, bans bump stocks, raises the age to buy a gun to 21 and sets limits on the size of magazines – 15 rounds for handguns and 10 for long guns.
The age restriction will exempt law enforcement and military personnel, as well as those who have taken a hunter safety course.
Supporters of the legislation say it will help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them and reduce the lethality of firearms. Opponents counter that the proposed changes will be ineffective, and make it more difficult for law-abiding Vermonters to obtain guns.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, a longtime support of expanded background checks, said that proposal faced dim prospects at the start of the session in January.
“Our attitudes are changing and they are changing for a very, very good reason,” he said.
He said while the legislation may not be perfect, if the expanded background checks stop just one shooting it’s well worth approving.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who opposed the legislation, said after the vote that he believed it represented a change in Vermont.
“I think this is the first step in gun control in Vermont that I’ve seen in my time here,” he said.
Sears added that the Legislature has taken the steps to “try to get guns out of the hands of people that shouldn’t have them,” but hasn’t previously done what he considered “gun control.”
The most contentious matter Friday dealt with a provision added to the bill in the House regarding the limit on magazine size.
Sears spoke out loudest against that provision, saying, “This thing was written on the fly.”
Sears talked of the difficulty of enforcing such a measure, especially when magazines over the limits that are currently possessed by a person are exempt.
Since they don’t come with dates or serial numbers, he said, it would make it extremely difficult in determining whether a particular magazine was purchased before the limit went into effect or after. This view was also expressed by the attorney general’s office during testimony on the bill, though Attorney General TJ Donovan said he still supported the ban.
Senate President pro tem Tim Ashe, P/D-Chittenden, said that while one provision of that magazine section of the legislation may be difficult to enforce, others won’t be as complicated, such as when someone is observed selling such a device.
Ashe said, “For me, the issue of enforceability has clouded the fact that what we will likely do with this provision is slow or stop the proliferation of high-capacity magazines.”
S.55 is part of a package of gun legislation that is on the way to the governor. On Thursday, the House passed S.211, known as a “red flag bill,” which permits law enforcement to seize guns from a person deemed an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.
Also, the Senate on Thursday approved H.422, a bill that sets in place a process for police to confiscate firearms from people cited or arrested on domestic violence charges.
S.221 received final approval in the House on Friday morning, March 30, and H.422 passed a third and final reading later in the day in Senate.
Scott says he will sign all three bills into law after his attorneys review the legislation for possible technical errors.
Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, which advocates for widening background checks, said after the vote Friday that she never thought such sweeping gun legislation would pass this session.
She said the incident in Fair Haven that came days after a mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., galvanized youth across the nation and in Vermont to help fuel the change.
“The students stepped up,” she said. “Their involvement has made the difference.”
Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed many of the amendments that made their way in the House version of the bill, including the magazine provision and the bump stock ban.
He had proposed other amendments that he later withdrew, including a ban on assault-style weapons and a 10-day waiting period for gun sales.
“I think we were crafting a bill that we thought we could get through the House, through the Senate and with the governor’s signature,” he said Friday as he was leaving the Statehouse.
“I pressed a lot of different ideas, some of them weren’t ready for prime time, some of them were going too far to really get the votes,” he added. “This is about where we thought we could go, as good a bill as we could get.”
Sears was the original sponsor of S.55 when it only dealt with setting a process for the disposal of abandoned firearms held by police. After it became the vehicle for several changes to the state’s gun laws, it lost Sears’ support.
As the bill’s sole sponsor, Sears said after the vote that he could have pulled the legislation.
“I knew all along I could have made a motion to withdraw the bill, which you can do at any point in the process,” he said. “It would been like a nuclear option, I wouldn’t do that to my colleagues.”
Supporters of concurring with the House version of the bill were:
Sens. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden; Claire Ayer, D-Addison; Becca Balint, D-Windham; Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden; Chris Bray, D-Addison; Francis Brooks, D-Washington; Brian Campion, D-Bennington; Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor; Ann Cummings, D-Washington; Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden; Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden; Mark MacDonald, D-Orange; Dick McCormack, D-Windsor; Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden; Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington; Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden; and Jeanette White, D-Windsor.
Voting against concurring were:
Sens. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia; Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin; Randy Brock, R-Franklin; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; Peg Flory, R-Rutland; Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia; Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle; Alice Nitka, D-Windsor; John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans; Dick Sears, D-Bennington; David Soucy, R-Rutland; Robert “Bobby” Starr, D-Essex-Orleans; and Richard Westman, R-Lamoille.