A proposal to require background checks on all gun sales in Vermont has become one of the most divisive bills of the year. And lawmakers learned at a hearing in the Statehouse on Tuesday night just how intense opposition to the legislation has become.
The public hearing on the gun legislation didn’t start until 5:30 p.m. But by 3 p.m., people coming out to oppose the bill were already waiting in line for their chance to speak out.
They wore blaze orange – lots of it. And by the time the hearing began, well over 600 citizens had filled not only the House chamber, but overflow rooms set up to handle the crowd.
Gun rights activists like Eddie Garcia, of St. Johnsbury, are upset, to put it mildly.
“I am going be very frank,” Garcia told the two Senate committees hosting the hearing Tuesday evening. “I am disgusted that I have to be here today to do this.”
Garcia’s sentiment to the Senate committees on judiciary and health and welfare hosting nicely summed up the feeling of many in the Statehouse Tuesday, where opponents of the bill vastly outnumbered supporters.
The proposed legislation seeks to expand background checks for sales over the Internet, or at gun shows. The bill aims to make it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns, by requiring courts here to add to a national gun background-check database the names of individuals found to be a danger to themselves or someone else. And the bill would also make it illegal under state law for a violent felon to possess a firearm.
Garcia and others, however, say the bill is a stalking horse for more oppressive gun control legislation in the future
“If this is passed, it would be only the first step in an incremental war on the rights of law-abiding Vermonters,” Garcia said. “Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution is clear that the people have the right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state. I don’t propose to stand idly by and watch that chipped away at.”
Supporters of the legislation offered emotional counterarguments. Anne Herz, of Woodstock, told of her son’s murder in 1991, at the hands of the disturbed ex of his girlfriend.
“The young man who committed this crime had a long history of violence and mental instability,” Herz said. “I don’t know where he got the gun. But I know he never would have a passed a background check.”
Other women recounted their own experiences of being stalked or intimidated by an ex-boyfriend or spouse, and their fear in the knowledge that the person following them might be armed with a gun.
For others, the imperative for new gun laws in Vermont stems from incidents of mass violence nationwide.
Bruce McLean, a Peacham resident and gun owner “with profound respect for the hunting tradition,” says the need for gun legislation here became apparent to him in late 2012.
“Then the tragedy at Newtown unfolded, and that was the final straw for me, because Vermont is not some remote island immune to the gun violence that pervades this country,” McLean said.
But gun rights supporters like Cary Halkiotas of Sharon say the Senate proposal will make life more difficult for law-abiding Vermonters while doing nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Halkiotas says Vermont’s low crime rates are testament to the sufficiency of its existing gun laws.
“Gun control has had as much effect on violent crime as prohibition did on alcoholism,” Halkiotas said.
Peter Cammann, a Williston man, recalled fondly getting a Stevens 20 gauge single-shot from his parents, a Christmas gift when he was 12 years old. Cammann said opponents of the bill are correct to say the legislation won’t end gun violence.
“It will not eliminate the threat of bad people doing bad things,” Cammann said. “But that doesn’t mean we should make it easy for them.”
And Cammann bill accomplishes its task without impinging on the Second Amendment rights of Vermonters.
“Nothing in the proposal to run background checks prior to firearm sales will threaten that,” Cammann said. “What it will do is it will make it more difficult for people with violent criminal records to act out on guns.”
Ed Wilson, a part-time, federally licensed gun dealer from Morrisville, said people like Cammann simply don’t understand the motives behind the people pushing for the gun bill, known as S.31.
Wilson said the bill is a precursor to what would one day become a gun registry.
“There are people who just don’t like guns and don’t believe that private citizens should have guns,” Wilson said. “But they cannot take our guns if they don’t know who has them or how many they have. S.31 is a dream come true for those who want to take your guns.”
The turnout Tuesday was testament to the mobilizing power of the bill’s opponents, as well as the intensity of their opposition. But Ann Braden, head of GunSense Vermont, the organization spearheading the lobbying effort for S.31 in the Statehouse, says orange-clad opponents don’t represent the silent majority of Vermonters who support the bill.
GunSense commissioned a poll last May that found 81 percent of Vermonters, and 77 percent of gun owners, support background checks on all gun sales.
“I think for too long this issue has been off limits for even discussion, because of the intensity of one small reaction of the population,” Braden said. “And that’s not an okay way to make legislative decision.”
Senate President John Campbell is a lead sponsor of the legislation. He said efforts by the opponents have had an impact, and cost the bill the backing of some formerly supportive lawmakers.
“There have been a few people who have since decided that they don’t want to be in my company at this point. But when you deal with an important issue like this, you have to take a stand.”
But Campbell said he thinks he still has the votes to pass something on the Senate floor.
Anyone voting ‘yes’ for that bill, according to opponents, will pay for it with their political lives. On the Statehouse lawn, an orange, 10-foot-tall sign greeted people arriving at the hearing Tuesday with a message: “We will vote you all out.”
“And it means everybody – all of you,” Dennis Morrisseau said, waiting in line outside the House chamber before the hearing. “These bills need to disappear.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold additional hearings on the bill over the course of the month.