It’s been more than two years since the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. But gun-control efforts sparked by the school shooting are still very much underway in Vermont. And some key Vermont senators are about to introduce what will become one of the most controversial bills of the 2015 legislative session.
Legislation calling for more, and stricter, background checks will be the most concerted push in recent memory for changes to Vermont’s gun laws. Backing the effort are some very key players, including Senate President John Campbell, Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, and Assistant Majority Leader Claire Ayer.
The bill’s goal is hard to argue with – keep guns out of the hands of people who would use them to harm themselves or others. But the means by which gun control advocates will aim to accomplish that goal likely won’t sit well with guardians of the Second Amendment.
Evan Hughes is a lobbyist for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, one of several politically influential groups that have opposed gun control measures in the past. Hughes says he’ll withhold comment on specific provisions in the bill until he sees the final product, which will be unveiled Wednesday.
“Vermont continuously is one of the very lowest crime rate states in the nation. We have one of the best states on gun safety. ATF figures show we are not a major source of guns going to other states. And we just see this ... addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. It's actually a solution in search of a problem,” Hughes says.
Baruth says he’s well aware of the intensity of the opposition the bill will likely face from the Vermont Sportsmen, the National Rifle Association and others. But the Chittenden County Democrat says it’s long past time for the state to take some “common-sense” measures, such as requiring Vermont courts to file in a national database the names of people it has found to be danger to themselves or others.
The names of those people – they would go into what’s known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – would then be red-flagged when they try to purchase a gun from any transaction that uses the NICS database.
“And that’s one of the common denominators in these sorts of mass shootings, people who have been often adjudicated to be a danger to themselves or their communities somehow still get their hands on weapons,” Baruth says. “So one of the ideas behind this bill is to try to prevent that specific segment of person from coming up with a weapon.”
A group called GunSense Vermont is leading the effort in Montpelier for new gun laws. That group’s singular focus is on mandating universal background checks for most all gun sales. The group’s founder, Ann Braden, says that means requiring background checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet, which don't currently fall under background check laws.
“The laws that we have currently in Vermont are some of the weakest in the nation. They’re leftover from an age gone by before there was an Internet, before there was an interstate. And because of that there’s this dangerous loophole that hasn’t been closed yet,” Braden says.
Baruth says the legislation being introduced this week will attempt to broaden the scope of transactions that are subject to background checks, though he says precisely which sales will require those checks is still being worked on.
Chris Bradley, the president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen, says efforts to expand oversight of legal gun transactions are more likely to create headaches for law-abiding citizens than to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.
“And what we’re really talking about, cutting right to the chase with a universal background check, is a feel good law that only law-abiding citizens are going to honor,” Bradley says.
The bill would also make it illegal under state law for a person convicted to a violent offense to possess a firearm.