Vermont’s top elected officials have vowed to move ahead with new restrictions on gun ownership, but a debate between the House and Senate this week shows that finding consensus on firearms legislation will be easier said than done.
Last month at a public hearing on gun laws, a woman named Stella Gravel made her way to the chamber of the House to deliver an emotional plea to lawmakers.
Gravel’s daughter was shot dead by her abusive husband in 2013, just a few days after police responded to their home for a domestic violence incident. Gravel told lawmakers that her daughter’s story underscores the need for legislation that would allow police to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of an alleged domestic assault.
“I truly believe if the guns had been taken away by the police when they very first showed up ... Rhonda might just still be here today,” Gravel said.
The temporary removal bill has already earned wide support in the Vermont House. But while Senate leaders say they support the spirit of the legislation, they have some concerns about its letter.
“Essentially a police officer could be given the decision without any kind of court intervention, the ability to remove somebody’s personal property. That is objectionable to me on its face because it violates the constitution,” says Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning.
Benning and other Senate lawmakers have come up with what they say is a constitutional workaround: Instead of letting cops make the final call about whether or not to seize firearms, their bill requires police to get a court order from a judge before seizing any weapons.
“I understand the passion [for the House bill], but I want to have the caution to know that you just don’t throw out your constitutional protections,” Benning says.
Auburn Watersong, the associate director of public policy with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, says the Senate’s approach weakens the protections that House bill 422 was created to provide, “because it inserts a court process where 422 did not have one inserted.”
Watersong says the process of obtaining that court order could delay the seizure of firearms during a time when domestic violence victims are statistically most likely to be killed by their partners.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson shares those concerns. Johnson says in rural areas with no cell service, police may not have immediate access to the judge whose permission they’d need to temporarily seize guns from the premises.
“There are plenty of places in Vermont where police would have to leave a scene to be able to work through the process laid out in 221 [the Senate proposal],” Johnson says.
Johnson says it may only be a small number of instances where the issue of communication becomes a problem.
“But we’re talking about a situation that is extremely volatile and extremely dangerous,” Johnson says.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, met with House leadership on Tuesday afternoon to try to iron out their differences. He says they weren’t able to come to agreement.
“Quite frankly, I’ve got to adhere to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides protection against unreasonable search and seizure,” Sears says.
But Sears, Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe say they’re confident they’ll eventually find a resolution.
“I would hate for the perception to be that there’s a big dispute between the two bodies,” Ashe says. “We’re rowing in the same direction, which is public safety.”
The dispute, however, may delay final passage of a bill that Gov. Phil Scott has asked lawmakers to deliver to his desk before the town meeting break next week.
The Senate bill also includes something known as the “extreme risk” provision. That measure would allow police to seek a court order to seize a firearm from anyone they believe poses a threat to themselves or others.
Scott says an averted school shooting at Fair Haven Union High School earlier this month makes passage of that provision urgent.
Scott says he supports the House’s version of the temporary removal bill. The governor's spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, says sidestepping the court order, and allowing police to seize firearms from the scene of a domestic assault without first having to get a judge’s approval, “adds an additional layer of safety.”
Scott’s own commissioner of public safety, Thomas Anderson, said last year that "there may be some constitutional concerns” with the House version of the bill. But Kelley says legislation has been enacted in other states, and that the governor is prepared to defend the legislation against any constitutional challenges.
“There’s always a potential for a constitutional challenge, but I think we feel good about where we’re at and will continue to have those discussions,” Kelley says.
One constituency that does not feel good about the House proposal is the coalition of gun rights advocates who favor the Senate approach.
In a written statement to the Legislature Monday, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Gun Owners of Vermont and the Vermont Traditions Coalition said the House plan would create “civil rights violations of due process.”