Universal Background Check Bill Faces Strong Resistance In Montpelier

Jan 10, 2017

A renewed effort to require universal background checks for all gun sales in Vermont is beginning to encounter some of the same resistance that thwarted a similar push two years ago.

Few issues divide Montpelier as deeply as gun laws, and a proposal to require background checks for all sales of firearms in Vermont is already generating some legislative turmoil.

Lawmakers rejected a similar bill two years ago, but proponents of universal background checks say they think 2017 could be their year.

“The coalition is broader. There are more people,” Ann Braden, president of GunSense Vermont, said at a press conference heralding the introduction of background-check legislation Tuesday. “There is more consensus that this is a safe place to stand and say, ‘I support universal background checks.'”

Gun-rights activists are known for their ability to turn out a crowd. But proponents of gun-control are getting pretty good at it too. The Statehouse press conference convened by Braden’s group drew well more than a hundred people into the Cedar Creek Room to voice their support.

Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth welcomed the crowd.

“Can I just point out how improbable a situation this is that we have too little space for the people who want universal background checks?” said Baruth, who is one of the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate.

Supporters of universal background checks for gun sales in Vermont crowded into the Statehouse Tuesday to ask lawmakers to pass a bill.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Gun-rights advocates have used their impressive organizing power over the years to muster strong and visible displays of contempt for proposed gun-control measures in Montpelier. Those efforts in no small part helped quash a universal background check bill in 2015.

But supporters of universal background checks say they’re prepared to demonstrate to lawmakers that there’s more enthusiasm, and political will, in favor of the proposal than against it.

The bill, in short, would require non-licensed firearms dealers to pay to have a background check done on the person they're selling to.

The legislative landscape in Montpelier may in some ways, however, be more unfavorable for Braden’s group now than it was two years ago.

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says the legislation doesn’t have the votes to make it through his committee, which is likely an unavoidable pit stop for any gun-control legislation.

"The fact remains that Vermont, according to the FBI, is the safest state in the nation, in terms of violent crime." — Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears

That was also the case in 2015. But in that session, proponents of universal background checks had a major asset: a Senate president who was willing to finagle unconventional procedural moves to advance the bill past where it would have gone without him.

Newly-elected Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, while a supporter of background checks, doesn’t sound like he’s ready to invest huge political capital in making it a chamber priority.

“At this time I’m not going to use this office to force that issue if the majority of the Senate isn’t ready to move forward with it,” Ashe says. “Trying to push a committee to move bills out that it doesn’t support by a majority is a road that people should be very cautious to go down, because then you basically undermine the purpose of having committees in the first place.”

Sears entered the 2015 debate with an open mind on universal background checks. In 2017, he says his opposition is firm. Sears says he arrived at his conclusion after visiting a firearms dealer recently.

“I said, ‘What if I give my neighbor my rifle … and he had to come and get a background check? How much would you charge him?’ He said, ‘Forty-five dollars.’ Then the more I checked around, it’d be even higher other places. The rifle isn’t even worth $45, so then what happens?”

"[Vermont] is a safe state, unless your intimate partner is an abuser and has a gun." — Karen Tronsgard-Scott, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence executive director

Sears says it'll have to be the House that moves first on background checks, if the legislation is going to go anywhere this year. Asked Tuesday if the House would be proceeding down that path, Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “I can’t answer that at this time.”

Sears says he’s not convinced the bill would make Vermont any safer, since outlaws could skirt the requirements easily enough. And he says he doesn’t see a pressing need for action.

“The fact remains that Vermont, according to the FBI, is the safest state in the nation, in terms of violent crime,” Sears says.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, the executive director of the Vermont Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence, says it’s true that Vermont is a safe place for most people here, “unless you live with a batterer.”

“It’s a safe state unless your intimate partner is an abuser and has a gun,” Tronsgard-Scott says.

The issue of domestic violence is in many ways the cornerstone of the pro-universal background check movement. Battered women living in homes with firearms are more likely to die at the hands of an abuser. And some studies show that states with universal background check laws in place have a lower rate of domestic homicides than those without it.

An analysis of academic studies on the effectiveness of background-check laws conducted by NPR determined that there’s “no perfect consensus on how well background-check laws work.” And some of the highest-profile incidents of gun violence in the United States were perpetrated by people who obtained their firearms through legal avenues.

But supporters say they aren’t under the impression that the bill under consideration in Montpelier will put an end to gun deaths, only that it has the capacity to curb gun violence.

“Now, I can’t guarantee any law will work 100 percent of the time,” said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat and co-sponsor the legislation in the House. “But I can share that if this bill saves even one life, it’s worth it. Especially if it’s the life of a child, and more so if that child is yours or mine.”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman spoke to supporters of background checks Tuesday. That background checks might cause a nuisance for gun owners looking to conduct a private sale, or add some new expenses, shouldn't deter lawmakers, Zuckerman said.

“For the, I would argue, relative inconvenience of universal background checks, the opportunity to reduce gun violence either perpetrated on others or self-inflicted is worth taking this step,” Zuckerman said.

Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, says the whole premise of universal background checks is built on a fallacy.

“The criminals are not going to pass any background checks – they’re not even going to do it,” Cutler says.

Two VPR polls conducted last year found that the overwhelming majority of Vermonters favor universal background checks – the proposal has majority support even among people who say they’re gun owners.

But Cutler says his group is planning its own Statehouse events in the weeks ahead, to demonstrate to lawmakers that the intensity of opposition among his members has not waned.

Cutler’s organization has another factor working in its favor: a Republican governor who says he’s opposed to any new gun laws. Gov. Phil Scott wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he would veto the legislation if it arrived at his desk.

“My position has been clear,” Scott said. “I think you can count on me to advocate that we do not need to change our gun laws.

Correction 10:54 a.m. 1/11/16 The second mention of Sen. Dick Sears in the original version of this story incorrectly identified Sears as a Chittenden County senator. He represents Bennington County.