Middlebury State Reps Talk Guns

By RACHEL COHEN

MIDDLEBURY— In an interview following their monthly “Meet Your Representatives” session on Mar. 17, Representatives Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, and Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, discussed the most pressing issues currently facing Middlebury and Vermont as a whole.

The interview topics included gun violence prevention legislation currently being discussed in the House and Senate, as well as bills that Sheldon and Scheu are working on in their committees, including the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources and the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, respectively. 

After last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida and the arrest of the Vermont teenager accused of planning a school shooting at Fair Haven High School, gun legislation has been the hot topic in the state legislature. Governor Phil Scott, who once believed that a mass shooting could not happen in Vermont, changed his mind after reading the affidavit for the Fair Haven incident. “I began to understand that we’re not as special as we thought,” he told Vermont Public Radio on Friday, Mar. 16.

Rep. Scheu said that while she is not sure of the extent to which the opinions of her colleagues in the Vermont House and Senate have shifted as a result of Gov. Scott’s change in mindset, she believes that it has opened the door for new conversations. “It’s given us the opportunity to go forth and push some gun violence prevention legislation that has been very difficult to push in the past,” she said.

Rep. Sheldon noted that there has been movement in the House and the Senate on some bills, but was reluctant to assess whether there has been an overall change in attitude in the Vermont legislature regarding gun legislation until there is a finished bill that the Governor can sign.

Scheu added that one change that has resulted from the increased attention to gun legislation in the past few weeks has been that the Senate Judiciary committee “finally got moving” on discussing gun legislation proposed by the House.

In the next couple of weeks, the House Judiciary Committee will discuss S.55, a bill that passed the Senate that includes expansions on background checks for firearm purchases and the raising of the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21 years old.

Both representatives said they are hopeful that S.55 will pass through the House, and believe that the House Judiciary Committee will add amendments, which the Senate will then have to approve before the bill officially passes.

This week, though, will be a busy week on the floor of the House with deliberations occurring for H.911, an act relating to changes in Vermont’s personal income tax and education financing, so discussion on S.55 may be pushed to the following week.

Rep. Sheldon, a hunter and gun owner herself, said that she wants to preserve access to guns for people who are safe with them, but has been in favor of regulating access to guns to prevent gun violence for her entire political career. It’s clear to her that Vermont needs a “multi-pronged approach” to gun legislation, and “we need to do as much as we can.”

For Rep. Scheu, a multi-pronged approach includes universal background checks; extreme-risk protection orders; getting guns out of the hands of domestic violence offenders; limiting magazine capacity, speed and bump stocks; and banning assault weapons – an amendment that she does not believe will pass through the legislature this year.

The representatives also spoke to work that they are doing in their respective committees.

Rep. Sheldon is working on legislation based on the Pollinator Protection Commission’s 2015 report to limit pollinators’ exposure to neonicotinoids (neonics). “It’s clear that they are seeing effects,” she said of local beekeepers whose hives have been harmed by the pesticides used on many Vermont farms.

Sheldon proposed a ban on household products containing neonics and the limiting of the sale of neonic-coated seeds, but the only measure to pass through the House was one that mandated access to non-treated seeds.

Sheldon said this is a “baby step” in the right direction, but she is “disappointed that it’s so watered down” from her original bill.

When asked how she will support Vermont farmers while addressing water quality and other environmental issues, Sheldon responded, “It’s on my mind daily. We love our farmers; we support our farmers,” she said. But, it’s “important to realize that the negative impacts of conventional farming right now are affecting public trust resources.”

Next week, Rep. Sheldon, along with a group of other Vermonters, will be in New York City for the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN. She will speak to what Vermont has done in terms of fostering access to food and supporting a healthy environment.

Rep. Scheu, who is on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, said that the legislature has “little appetite” for the 925-bed prison complex that was proposed earlier this year and garnered substantial media attention. Additionally, she said there is “even less appetite for the for-profit option.”

Right now, Scheu’s priority is figuring out how to improve medically-assisted treatment in corrections facilities. The committee is assessing many options for how to do “corrections the Vermont way,” including supporting a study on the effectiveness of restorative justice in cases of domestic and sexual violence.

Overall, the representatives said that a substantial amount of legislation will be discussed in the next few weeks. “It’s a good time to be paying attention,” Scheu said.

They encourage students to come to the State House to make their voices heard on important pieces of legislation.

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Middlebury State Reps Talk Guns