Rep. Bob Helm (R-Fair Haven) speaks against a gun bill Thursday on the House floor.
After a four-hour and sometimes heated debate filled with attempts to delay and defeat the measure, the House voted 79-60 on Thursday for a bill designed to make it harder for violent felons and the seriously mentally ill to have guns.
“We’re keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals and out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill,” said Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton), vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
The vote represents a historic move for Vermont lawmakers who have long been loathe to consider any legislation that restricts gun ownership in the hunter-friendly state.
Despite the lengthy debate Thursday, opposition was not as intense as at an earlier Statehouse hearing during which hundreds of gun owners spoke against any changes to Vermont’s gun laws.
The difference was in part because House leaders late Wednesday agreed to lower the standard for mentally ill people to prove they should be remove from the list, and to remove an 18-month waiting period for such challenges. Some 250 to 375 Vermonters a year are under a mental health court order that would put them on the registry, Jewett said.
Following that move Wednesday, a prominent group of gun activists dropped its opposition to the bill.
“After we got what we wanted, there really wasn’t much left to oppose,” said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. The group didn't support the bill, but agreed not to actively lobby against it.
Some gun owners remained firmly opposed. Ed Cutler of the Gun Owners of Vermont said his group wanted a process by which violent felons could earn back the right to possess firearms.
But the sportsmen's decision meant far fewer members turned out at the Statehouse on Thursday and that legislators were peppered with far fewer emails pressuring them to vote against the bill.
Lawmakers nonetheless embarked on a lengthy debate over whether changes to Vermont’s gun laws are needed.
“We do have a problem with guns,” argued Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), a physician. “Specifically, we have a problem with suicide.”
“If I really thought we had a problem I would vote for this bill. I’m wondering how many suicides we prevent from this bill,” countered Rep. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester). “If they don’t have that gun they’re going to find another way.”
Not true, Till argued. Suicide is an impulsive action and any delay in obtaining a deadly weapon could help prevent it, he said.
Other opponents argued the bill is a first step to eroding Vermonters’ right to bear arms.
“We heard testimony from gun-control advocates that this is a first good step,” said Rep. Tom Burditt (R-West Rutland). “We fear it means expanded background checks.”
Gun-rights activists widely believe that universal background checks are tantamount to a gun registry that would allow the government to track who owns what weapons, something they vehemently oppose. Gun-control advocates dropped their bid for universal background checks earlier this year, but made it clear they will continue to seek that in the future.
The Senate has already passed a slightly different version of the bill. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said he hopes those changes can be worked out without having the bill go to a conference committee. That’s why he helped broker Wednesday’s compromise.
Sears said he thinks Gov. Peter Shumlin will sign the bill. Shumlin, who has previously said the state’s gun laws need no changes, refused to say Thursday what he would do. He claimed the bill was undergoing too many changes for him to commit. “I’m going to wait until I see what’s in the thing,” he said.
Those on both sides of the gun debate claimed victory with Thursday’s vote.
“This is huge progress for gun-violence prevention,” said Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont, which pushed for the bill.
“It's sad to think Gun Sense considers this law a way to start gun control in Vermont," said Bill Moore, lobbyist for the Vermont Traditions Coalition. "Strictly speaking, this is not gun control. This does not change the number of prohibited persons in the state of Vermont."