The Senate Judiciary Committee debates gun laws Friday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Friday to bar certain convicted criminals from possessing firearms and to report the names of some mentally ill people to a federal database.
Friday's vote set up an exceedingly rare floor debate next week over the supposed third rail of Vermont politics: the state's relatively permissive gun laws.
But even as the committee prepared to sign off on the bill early Friday afternoon, its members appeared focused on what they weren't approving: namely, universal criminal background checks.
"S.31 is not being acted on in this committee," its chair, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), said. "S.31 is dead — I guess that's the proper term — and will not be acted on this year or next year by this committee."
Sears was referring to the subject of weeks of heated testimony and an evening hearing last month that brought out hundreds of gun-rights supporters and opponents. The centerpiece of that bill was a requirement that those buying guns in private sales must submit to federal background checks.
While the committee abandoned that provision weeks ago, it continued to debate two other components of S.31: a ban on certain convicted criminals possessing firearms and new federal reporting requirements. As the committee neared a deadline to take action Friday afternoon, it opted to include both measures in a new committee-authored bill.
That was enough for gun-control activists to celebrate.
"This is a historic victory, because this is a gun violence prevention bill that's going forward despite the opposition of the gun lobby," Gun Sense Vermont cofounder Ann Braden said after the vote. "This issue has been untouchable for years and now it's on the table."
Gun-rights supporters provided more measured responses.
"We've done this for many years," said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "We understand this is one more step in the process. At this point, we still have things that concern us, but we're willing to participate in getting the bill right."
Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, said his "big paranoia" is that the Vermont House could approve more restrictive legislation in the coming weeks. But Cutler celebrated the Senate committee's decision to set up a study of whether a suicide prevention strategy employed in New Hampshire might work in Vermont. (See Nancy Remsen's story on the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project in this week's Seven Days.)
Committee members spent much of Friday morning debating which convicted criminals would be barred from possessing firearms. Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) questioned whether those guilty of lewd and lascivious conduct ought to be stripped of their constitutional right to bear arms, even if they rose pretty high on the "creep-o-meter."
The committee eventually decided to bar those convicted of violent crimes, such as murder and sexual assault, from possessing guns, along with those convicted of trafficking guns. It exempted such crimes as lewd and lascivious conduct, reckless endangerment and driving-related offenses.
The committee also struggled with the question of whether to report the names of those deemed mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, whose names would be reported and whether they could later be removed from the list.
Sears expressed frustration that so many questions about the process remained as Friday's crossover deadline approached.
"We're running out of time," he said. "We either do this or we don't."
In the draft approved Friday, the names of those ordered by a court to undergo mental health treatment would be reported to the system, known as NICS. Those found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity and those found not competent to stand trial would also be reported.
After three years, such people could petition to be removed from the list.
Friday's vote was a victory for Senate President John Campbell (D-Windsor), who implored Sears to take action on gun laws this year, and for Sens. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) and Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who introduced S.31 with Campbell.
It's a setback for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has strongly opposed most new restrictions on gun rights.