Universal Background Checks Clear First Hurdle In Montpelier

Mar 1, 2018

In a move that seemed almost unthinkable at the outset of the 2018 legislative session, elected officials in Montpelier appear to be on track to make universal background checks the law before the end of the year.

The Vermont Senate narrowly approved an amendment Thursday afternoon that would require background checks for private gun sales, with an exception for transactions between immediate family members.

The provision will head next to the Vermont House, where House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski says that, when it comes to summoning the 76 votes needed to pass the measure on the House floor, “we will get there.”

And while the veto pen of Gov. Phil Scott until recently seemed like an impenetrable obstacle for supporters of the background checks proposal, the Republican governor now says that if the measure makes it to his desk before the end of the session, he’ll "probably sign it."

“The time for hand-wringing and shoulder-shrugging over this issue is over,” Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint said during a floor debate Thursday. “We have to take action.”

The new urgency for that action arrived when police arrested an 18-year-old man last month for allegedly planning to inflict mass casualties at Fair Haven Union High School. 

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"I had thought for quite some time that Vermont was immune to this type of thing," Scott said after reading the affidavit in that case. "[But] it wasn't a question of if it was going to happen. It was a just question of which day, and that has a way of rocking your very core."

Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth has been leading the charge for universal background checks for years in Montpelier. On Thursday, he credited events in Vermont and beyond for breaking the legislative logjam.

"Let there be no mistake about one thing — mass shootings are a viral phenomenon, and Vermont has caught that virus, like every other state in the union." — Sen. Phil Baruth

“Let there be no mistake about one thing — mass shootings are a viral phenomenon, and Vermont has caught that virus, like every other state in the union,” Baruth said.

Over the past three years, Vermont has added 589 allegedly dangerous people to the list of individuals who’d be flagged in a background check, as being ineligible to purchase a gun. Baruth says that statistic spotlights the gaping loophole in existing gun laws.

“Because all 589 can still go online right now today and buy the rifle, the AR-15 or handgun of their choice, from a stranger in a parking lot for cash without a background check,” Baruth said.

Baruth said that by making it a crime to sell a gun without first having the buyer go through a background check, Vermont can close that loophole.

Critics of the measure, however, say it’ll add costs and inconvenience to responsible gun owners without at all improving public safety.

“I really don’t think a drug dealer from Holyoke, Mass., seeking to trade guns for drugs, is gonna go through a background check when he arrives in Vermont,” said Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning went on Thursday to note that many perpetrators of this country’s most notorious mass shootings went through a federal background check to acquire their guns.

“I’d like to think … that the Senate is a deliberative body that recognizes our constitutional obligation to enact legislation only when it is necessary, and when doing so, to act with moderation,” Benning said. “This bill does neither … and therefore I cannot support it.”

Essex-Orleans Sen. John Rodgers said for low-income Vermonters buying guns from friends, the approximately $30 charge to get the background check — it would have to be conducted by a federally licensed firearms dealer — would in some cases be prohibitive.

“I believe one of the things this amendment will do is force otherwise law-abiding citizens to be criminals, because I think a whole lot of people won’t go through the background check when they’re selling a firearm to somebody they know,” Rodgers said.

The Senate earlier this week passed legislation that would allow police to seek a court order to seize firearms from someone they believe poses an “extreme risk” to themselves or others. And lawmakers say they’ll be entertaining other gun measures this year as well.

Krowinski says when House lawmakers return from town meeting break, they’ll begin work on legislation that could include upping the legal age for gun purchases to 21 and imposing new restrictions on magazine capacity.