In the latest testament to the enduring salience of the politics of firearms in Vermont, nearly 1,000 people turned out at a public hearing in the Statehouse Tuesday evening to offer impassioned arguments for — and against — proposed gun legislation.
The Legislature is considering a number of gun-related measures this year, including one that would allow police to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of an alleged domestic violence incident.
For gun rights activists, the proposal represents a chipping away of a right to bear arms enshrined in both the U.S. and Vermont constitutions. William Waizenegger, of Rutland, said passage of even modest gun-control measures in Vermont could lead to the more substantive restrictions lawmakers have enacted in other states.
“Their citizens lost their rights to self-defense because their rights were legislated away one seemingly well-meaning warm and fuzzy law at a time,” Waizenegger told lawmakers. “And once gone, a right is hard to get back. And that is what we’re facing right now in Vermont.”
For domestic violence awareness advocates, however, like the East Hardwick woman whose daughter was shot dead by her abusive husband in 2013, the proposed legislation would give law enforcement the tools necessary to prevent avoidable domestic homicides.
Speaking in a halting voice, Stella Gravel recounted the day her daughter was killed. The murder occurred after a domestic violence incident, but before her husband faced a court hearing for alleged abuse.
Police had taken his guns after the incident, according to Gravel, but gave them to the man’s family afterward. When the husband got out of jail, he retrieved the firearms from his family members, Gravel said, and then used them to kill his wife.
“It was my biggest nightmare. We all miss Rhonda every day," Gravel said. “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.”
It’s stories like Gravel’s that proponents of the legislation say the bill is designed to avoid.
Auburn Watersong, associate policy director at the Vermont Network Against domestic and Sexual Violence, says the hours and days immediately following a police response to a domestic assault are statistically the most dangerous for victims.
“That’s when things can get the most escalated in that household, and so our bill proposes just to remove the firearms for five days, just to give the victim and possibly the victim’s children some time to do some safety planning,” Watersong says.
The bill, which passed the House last year and is now sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would allow police to temporarily seize guns — for up to five days — from someone arrested or cited for domestic violence, if the officer believes they pose a safety threat.
Opponents of the legislation say it shreds Vermonters’ right to due process. Everett Fryman, of Morrisville, says he understands “domestic violence is a huge nationwide problem.”
“I understand that it’s terrible and I understand that violence by itself is a very terrible thing,” Fryman said. “However … I would hope those that are accused of domestic violence would receive that same due process in a court - not the court of public opinion, not a kangaroo court, but a court presided over by a judge and a jury.”
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, shares Fryman’s concerns. Sears says he worries the legislation passed by House lawmakers last year might be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, and has offered up a separate bill that would allow temporary seizure of firearms only after a judge has granted the order.
Lawmakers have received conflicting testimony on the constitutionality of the proposed measure: Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas Anderson said last year "there may be some constitutional concerns with the bill; the attorney general's office testified that lawmakers were likely on safe legal ground.
Watersong says the problem with Sears’ proposal is that it would require a law enforcement officer to write an affidavit, present it to a judge, and await a decision. That takes time, Watersong says.
“And that time that it takes is really that critical window that the [Vermont] Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence is most concerned about,” Watersong says.
Another legislative proposal would require background checks for private gun sales conducted by non-federally licensed firearm dealers, but Sears says he doesn’t think that proposal has the support to make it out of his committee in 2018.