A push to expand background checks on sales of firearms in Vermont is already dead. But gun-control advocates are trying salvage other provisions in their bill. And they’re getting major support from Vermont police.
It’s already illegal under federal law for people convicted of violent felonies to own or possess a gun. But Vermont is the only state in the nation without a comparable statute at the state level.
Gun-control advocates say it’s long past time lawmakers addressed the issue. Leaders in the criminal justice system agree.
“When it comes to regulating firearms, this is fundamentally a state power and a state function,” says David Cahill, head of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriff’s Association. "So the question shouldn’t be, ‘Aren’t the feds taking care of it?’ The question should be, ‘Why aren’t we taking care of this problem? And why are we delegating to the federal government?’”
Most state and local police aren’t authorized to enforce federal law. And Cahill says that sometimes hampers law enforcement.
“We’d like to give our law enforcement officers the ability to confront that person about the fact that they’re hanging out on the street corner with a gun, and get that gun off of them and hold them accountable before they do the shooting,” Cahill says.
The Vermont Police Association and the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs also support a state law dealing with felons and firearms.
While local police can enlist their federal counterparts for assistance, police say federal agents don’t always have the resources, or level of interest, needed to intercede.
Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos says a state law prohibiting felons from possessing firearms would provide law enforcement with a “leverage point” for community-level public safety issues. The threat of prosecution for that kind of gun crime could, for instance, help police convince people to provide information about drug dealers operating in the region, according to Facos.
The bill under consideration now would make it illegal only for people convicted of violent felonies, or major drug crimes, to possess a gun. But police want the Legislature simply to mirror the federal law, which covers more offenses.
“This is a very big issue for us and we want to make sure … it’s comprehensive enough, so we address the issues as we see them,” says Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel.
Evan Hughes, a lobbyist for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, says if federal officers aren’t enforcing federal laws, then lawmakers should urge the state’s congressional delegation to supplement resources.
Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, says he worries about the impact on people who made a mistake decades ago, but now lead stand up lives.
“The biggest fear is somebody who’s straightened their lives out,” Cutler says. “My biggest fear is those people being prosecuted under the Vermont law.”
Lawmakers are also considering a provision aimed at making it more difficult for mentally ill people with violent tendencies to get a gun.