On January 2, 2019

State police can’t conduct background checks for private gun sales, officials say

By Xander Landen/VTDigger

Vermont’s law enforcement agencies would not be able to carry out background checks on private firearms sales, the Department of Public Safety has determined.

As part of a sweeping package of gun control measures that became law this year, legislators moved to expand background checks to private gun purchases, in addition to sales at gun shops, or through other licensed dealers.

Lawmakers also asked the Department of Public Safety to find out whether state and local police, in addition to gun dealers, would be able to run background checks on sales that occur outside the retail sphere.

But in a memo sent to legislators last week, the department found that Vermont’s law enforcement agencies, unlike federally licensed firearm dealers, are not authorized to request the FBI to run checks through its National Instant Background Check System (NICS).

Through the system, the federal government can search through national databases of criminal justice, mental health, and military records, according to the memo written by the Department of Public Safety’s deputy commissioner, Christopher Herrick.

If Vermont law enforcement agencies conducted background checks without the aid of the FBI and its system, they would be “incomplete” Herrick said, and limited only to state records.

“Authorization for limited background checks could result in Vermont serving as a pass-through state for individuals trying to avoid federal restrictions on firearm purchases by exploiting vulnerabilities in this cursory check,” he wrote in the memo.

Herrick said law enforcement agencies in Vermont shouldn’t serve as an alternative to licensed firearms dealers, until federal law and regulations expand to give local agencies access to the NICS.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who opposed expanding background checks to private sales during this year’s debate over gun legislation, said enforcing the checks is “extremely difficult.”

When lawmakers were considering expanding background checks, he heard from gun dealers who planned on charging $50-$100 fees to conduct checks for those engaging in private sales.

“When you make laws, you’ve got to be able to enforce them and I don’t see the mechanism there to enforce this law in private sales,” he said. “You made it difficult and expensive for people to do this.”

But Herrick said his department has received many calls from people asking about the new requirement, and where they can conduct background checks for their private sales. “Some people certainly are complying with the law,” Herrick said.

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