Sen. Dick Sears speaks on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Gun laws may no longer be the third rail of Vermont politics.
So seemed to be the message Wednesday out of the Vermont Senate, which voted 20 to 8 in favor of new restrictions on who can bear arms.
The legislation, up for final passage Thursday, does not go nearly as far as gun-control activists had hoped earlier this year. It does not, for instance, require those who purchase guns through private sales to undergo background checks. Rather, it bars certain convicted criminals from possessing firearms, and it forces the state to report the names of potentially violent, mentally ill Vermonters to a federal database.
Nevertheless, Wednesday's lopsided, tri-partisan vote demonstrated that despite intense opposition from gun rights supporters, legislators appear willing to take on the politically fraught issue.
During an hourlong debate, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) emphasized what he saw as the limited scope of the bill.
"The basic question of this bill is: Are there some people who you, as a body, through our vote, believe should not be possessing firearms?" Sears said. "If you believe that convicted, violent felons and drug traffickers and people with serious mental illness who have been found by a court of law either to be incompetent or not guilty by reason of insanity ought not to have firearms, then that's, I guess, how your vote will be."
But Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) argued that the bill — and, even more so, an earlier incarnation that mandated universal background checks — "is an attack on our heritage and our culture." He said it was "driven from outside forces," referring to allegations that the gun-control group Gun Sense Vermont is financed by groups associated with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"I, for one, was born here and brought up in the gun culture, and I think others who moved to Vermont because they liked the culture are welcome," Rodgers said. "Others, who have stated that they want to change our culture here, may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like."
Much of Wednesday's debate focused on a provision requiring the state to report the names of those deemed mentally ill and potentially violent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The bill mandates reporting of those who undergo court-ordered treatment or are found not competent to stand trial or not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity.
The bill provides recourse for such individuals to petition the court to be removed from the system 18 months after leaving Department of Mental Health custody. But Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) called that waiting period "an arbitrary bar" and proposed eliminating it. His amendment failed on a voice vote.
Sears said that the state of Virginia opted to report to NICS only after a mentally ill student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in a 2007 shooting.
"I'd hate to see Vermont wait for such a tragedy to occur before reporting names to the federal instant background check system," he said.
Ann Braden, a cofounder of Gun Sense Vermont, said after the vote that it was "a significant step to keep guns out of the wrong hands." She said her group will now turn its focus to the House, which has yet to debate the bill. Even if it passes the House, the bill faces uncertain prospects, given that Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he does not support it.
Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said his organization will continue fighting the legislation. "We're still opposed to the bill," he said after the vote. "It's unnecessary. It's not based on sound public policy. We're going to continue to oppose it."
Voting for the bill were Sens. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), Becca Balint (D-Windham), Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), Benning, Chris Bray (D-Addison), John Campbell (D-Windsor), Brian Campion (D-Bennington), Ann Cummings (D-Washington), Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), Sears, Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden), Richard Westman (R-Lamoille), Jeanette White (D-Windham) and David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden).
Voting against it were Sens. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Norm McAllister (R-Franklin), Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), Rodgers and Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans).
Sens. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Bill Doyle (R-Washington) were absent for the vote.