By Colin Meyn, VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott said he was “disappointed” that a bill addressing gun violence did not make it to his desk last week after the House decided to move on its own “extreme risk” gun seizure bill rather than passing a similar bill already approved by the Senate.
The bill that looked most likely to get out of the Legislature first was S.221, which allows authorities to obtain an on-the-spot warrant to seize guns from individuals deemed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
It was passed unanimously in the Senate. However, it was criticized by members of Scott’s own administration for being too narrow in scope. Getting it to Scott on Friday, March 2, would have required the House to accept the bill as it was delivered, and then pass it in a day, a course they decided against.
Instead, they made changes to provisions in S.221 and then added it as an amendment to another bill, H.675, which was then passed by the House on Friday afternoon.
The new bill will likely move to a conference committee later this month where Legislators will have to work toward a compromise.
Among the changes in the bill passed by the House was an amendment that would make it a felony to possess a firearm on school grounds with the intent to harm. The House also added specific provisions allowing authorities to seize guns in domestic violence situations, lowered the standard of proof applied by law enforcement officers when deciding to seize firearms in “extreme risk” situations and increased the length of time that a court order could hold firearms after being seized.
Scott had to sign something quickly, in the wake of a school shooting that killed 17 students in Parkland, FL, and the arrest of a teenager in Vermont who police allege was preparing for an imminent mass attack.
The senators who introduced S.221 rebuked their colleagues in the House for not following their lead in passing it.“It is unfortunate we didn’t take an opportunity we had in front of us to pass a bill 180-0,” said Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, during a meeting on gun laws Friday morning. “I’m just saying: opportunity lost by the Vermont Legislature.”
Sears said he understood that the law had shortcomings, but felt those concerns should have come second to getting something done.
“I agree the bill is limited, but we had an opportunity in this state to send a message to Vermonters: the governor, the House, the Senate, all together 180 to nothing, and we blew it,” Sears said.
Maxine Grad, D-Moretown and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the House was ultimately returning a strengthened bill to the Senate. She noted that Jaye Pershing Johnson, the governor’s legal counsel, was among those who gave testimony saying that S.221 was too narrow in scope.
“What was most important was that we were moving quickly and taking this very seriously,” Grad said. “And we can go home and say we have worked on it, and in the end I think that’s what the governor, I think that’s what we all want.”
Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, who introduced the amendments to the bill, said achieving broad support was less important than drafting an effective law.
“I’m a little less concerned with unanimity than making sure we have the strongest bill that we can get,” he said. “Also, the testimony we heard, we took two days of testimony, and most everybody except for folks from the gun lobby felt that the bill should be strengthened.”
The Senate also gave final approval on Friday to S.55, which requires mandatory background checks for private gun sales and raises the minimum legal age to purchase a gun from 16 to 21. It was passed by a vote of 17 to 13 and now heads to the House.
Under that bill, individuals who attempt to purchase a gun when legally prohibited from doing so so face up to a year in prison and a $500 fine.
Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of Gun Sense Vermont, which has long lobbied for universal background checks, said the fact that so many efforts to combat gun violence were moving forward at the same time gave her reason to be optimistic, despite what she called “scuffling” at the Statehouse. But in the end “We will have a really good spectrum of gun safety bills,” she said with optimism.
John Rodgers, R-Essex-Orleans District, was among the senators who voted against universal background checks. He said the last thing Vermont needed was a new way to put people in jail, adding that the law would be costly and ineffective.
“I think this would have never happened if it wasn’t for the tragedy in Florida and the near miss in Fair Haven. We would have finished out this year without background checks,” Rodgers said, referring to a the arrest of Jack Sawyer, 18, whom police accuse of plotting an attack on Fair Haven Union High School and purchasing a gun for that purpose.
The governor has said he is open to discussing universal background checks, but won’t say if he supports a specific bill until it is passed by the Legislature. He said he would have preferred raising the legal age to purchase guns with exceptions for people who had completed gun safety classes, but would probably support a bill even without them.
“We look forward to working with both the House and Senate on these commonsense proposals to better protect our kids and communities, upon their return,” Kelly said on behalf of the governor.