Vermont House Passes New Gun Restriction Bill

By Isabelle Dietz

As of April 17, Vermont is one step closer to implementing a new gun restriction law  with bill S.141 passing in both the Vermont Senate and the Vermont House. Bill S.141 was passed in the House with a relatively close vote of 80 yeas and 62 nays. Previously in March, the bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 20-8, with two senators absent.

Bill S. 141 will restrict convicted felons of certain levels of violent crimes and the mentally ill from possessing firearms. Already a crime under federal law, this bill will create much more accountability for the state. For example, in order to classify an individual as mentally ill and a danger to themselves, or others, the state will introduce the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as a mechanism for reporting.

However, certain parts of this bill required extensive revisions.  One such section was about the process by which an individual may regain rights to buy guns, once listed on, but later removed from, the federal database.  Another contentious point was the length of time before someone who was once listed  would have to wait before being able to to purchase a gun.  Once the legislature reached a compromise on the language of this section, they took the bill to a vote.

Vermont has previously been characterized as one of the least restrictive gun control states. Vermont does not require a permit to carry an open or concealed weapon, and was for a long time the only state to allow this. In addition, as told by the Washington Post, the state of Vermont also allows minors as young as 16 to buy handguns and conceal carry without a guardian’s permission.

In light of Vermont’s history with relaxed gun control laws, there was contested debate over the proposed bill. The House explained their votes, and their statements were recorded in the House Journal.

Many representatives saw bill S.141 as a challenge to their right to bear arms, a right traditionally respected in Vermont. Rep. Ronald Hubert of Milton explained his vote against the bill as follows: “‘The people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State’ are words Vermonters have lived by since July 8, 1777. Now, nearly two and a half centuries later, this founding principle is being challenged by S.141.”

Rep. Lynn Batchelor of Derby also agreed that this bill challenged the rights of Vermonters to bear arms:

“Vermonters, first in our own state constitution, and later in the American Bill of Rights, have always understood and preserved our right to protect ourselves without infringement from Government – be it local, state or federal. I vote “NO” to stand up for nearly 250 years of tradition and to protect the right to bear arms for future generations of Vermonters.”

In contrast to such dissenting opinions, there were many voices in the House who vocalized their support for the bill.

As Rep. Steve Berry of Manchester explained, “This is a bill that focuses on the responsibility of legislators to protect and defend all Vermonters from those who would abuse our 2nd Amendment. I was not voting, nor being asked to vote, on the rights for citizens to bear arms. Mr. Speaker, everyone in this chamber has the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters.”

Other representatives felt comfortable voting for the bill because of its limited scope, and claimed that it was not even a gun control bill. As Rep. Joseph Troiano of Stannard explained:

“It strongly represents states rights, it represents the wishes of a majority of Vermonters. This is not a gun control bill. This is not a background check bill. U.S. Attorney’s offices often do not prosecute firearm cases due to lack of resources. This bill makes sense.”

There was also some debate among members as to whether this bill followed a state agenda or a national agenda, and many felt that outside forces were pressuring Vermont to give up its gun rights. Rep. Larry Fiske of Enosburgh claimed that the vote was instigated by outside campaigns, rather than his constituents in Vermont:

“I vote ‘NO’ because this is not legislation advanced by the people of Vermont. It’s legislation pushed by special interest groups seeking to use our state as a pawn to advance their own national agenda. This legislation isn’t about a safer Vermont. It’s about limiting your rights as Vermonters and Americans, and paying political debts for campaign contributions from outside interest groups.”

Now that the bill S.141 has passed both the state House and the state Senate, it will go to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. If he signs the bill it will become law, and if he vetoes it then the bill will return to the House and Senate. If they vote again they can override his veto with a majority of 2/3. If Shumlin does not sign the bill and does not veto it within five days after receiving it, it also becomes a law.

At this point, Shumlin has yet to make a firm statement on whether or not he supports the bill.

As told to Burlington Free Press, Shumlin revealed, “I’ll pass judgment on it when it gets to me. All I can say is that the changes that have been made to the bill since it was introduced make it almost unrecognizable from the bill that was introduced,” he said. “And that’s the bill I objected to.”