A weeks-long debate in the Vermont Legislature over controversial gun legislation came to end on Friday when the Senate held a final vote on a bill known as S.55.
The legislation, which would require background checks for private gun sales, raise the minimum age for buying a gun to 21, and ban the sale or purchase of high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, passed the Senate 17 to 13 after nearly two hours of debate.
The bill is now on its way to Gov. Phil Scott, who has said he will sign it.
Vermont is now poised to end its standing as a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country.
And it was that cultural change that Essex-Orleans Sen. John Rodgers lamented in his remarks to the Senate. He said gun ownership and gun rights were a part of the Vermont he knew growing up in the Northeast Kingdom.
“I think maybe if we pass this bill, maybe it is over, maybe the Vermont I grew up with is over, and it’s changed,” he said during the debate Friday. “When I was young it seemed like the people who moved here, moved here because they loved it here and embraced our values and our heritage and our traditions. But it seems now we’re overpopulated by folks who came here for different reasons.”
But other senators said recent school shootings around the country — and the arrest in February of a former Fair Haven student who had threatened his high school— showed Vermont was not immune to potential mass gun violence.
Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth argued the legislation will make the state safer.
“I believe as expressed by people who previously opposed [the bill] that it will help in all sorts of categories: suicide, mass shootings, and other moments of gun violence,” he said.
The bill raises the legal age for gun purchases, expands background checks for private gun sales and bans high-capacity magazines and rapid-fire devices known as bump stocks. Opponent argued the measure is unconstitutional, won’t make the state any safer, and that the magazine ban is unenforceable.
Bennington County Senator Dick Sears wanted to strip the bill of the magazine section, which was added by the House. He noted that the House included an exemption for Vermont companies to make high-capacity magazines – yet passed a bill that banned the devices for sale within the state.
“We have the incongruity, Mr. President, of manufacturing an item the other body chose to ban. Yet they made an exception to produce the product in Vermont, and then ship it to other states,” he said. “So if it’s bad here, why is it good over there?”
Senate President Tim Ashe said restricting the capacity of magazines made sense as a preventative measure.
“We often hear in Vermont there never has been an incidence where this has happened or that has happened,” Ashe said. “There has been no instance where a 30 capacity magazine has been used. That’s always true until it is. That’s precisely the problem. It’s always true until someone uses such a device.”
At 2:40, not long before the final vote, Sen. Sears asked if he could remove his name as co-sponsor of S.55, which he said he no longer supported. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman said the "short answer: no."
Longer answer, Sears could, according to the rules of the Senate, at that time choose to send the bill back to committee.
After a brief recess, Sears withdrew his motion "if there ever was one," and the proceedings continued.
The Senate was actually the first chamber to consider S.55, which they approved it by a vote of 17-13 back on March 2.
But, the version of the bill that Senate lawmakers voted on less than a month ago included only two of the four key provisions now in play:
- Mandatory background checks for private gun sales
- Raising the legal age to purchase a gun to 21 years old
Senators who voted 'yes' on background checks:
— Peter Hirschfeld (@PeteHirschfeld) March 1, 2018
It did not include the other two provisions:
- Banning bump stocks
- Banning sale or possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds
The Senate will take up two more gun-related measures next week; both are aimed at removing guns from homes in cases of domestic violence or when someone is at risk of imminent harm from firearms.