The Vermont Mayors Coalition Calls for Universal Background Checks | Off Message

The Vermont Mayors Coalition Calls for Universal Background Checks

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Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger speaks, flanked by  (right to left) Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard, Montpelier Mayor John Hollar and law enforcement officials. - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger speaks, flanked by (right to left) Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard, Montpelier Mayor John Hollar and law enforcement officials.
The Vermont Mayors Coalition on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to require universal background checks for all gun sales, a measure that has stalled in recent years despite documented public support and outrage about mass shootings.

In the wake of the June 12 Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people, Vermont's eight mayors called for a measure that they say would increase safety while respecting the rights of gun owners. Some of the mayors first pushed for background checks after the 2012 murders of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

"In the three years since [Newtown], we have seen a terrible series of massacres across the country, [but] we have seen no action from Congress and very little action by state leaders," Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said during a press conference at the city's police station. "It would be better for the federal government to act, but in the absence of that, state and local leaders must act."

Vermont has some of the most lax gun laws in the country, and a universal background check proposal failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. A bill that would have allowed Burlington to enact local gun control ordinances stalled again this year, following a successful citywide referendum in 2014.

The mayors said they are also concerned that one of the few laws Vermont has passed to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people may not be working. In 2015, state lawmakers required the judiciary to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — used by licensed gun sellers to vet customers — the names of people committed for involuntary mental health treatment.

The bill was designed to close what proponents said was a dangerous loophole. The federal government cannot require states to send information about judicial rulings of mental illness to the database, and some states, including Vermont, never bothered. By 2014, gun control groups said, Vermont had submitted just 25 mental health records to the database, about four records per 100,000 residents. In contrast, the more vigilant states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas, had submitted more than 800 records per 100,000 residents.

But the mayors said they have been stymied in recent months to learn if the judiciary is following the NICS reporting requirement. 

"I don't believe we're giving it a high enough priority," Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon said. "Is the number 50? Is it 100? Is it 14? When I can't even get that information, it leads me to express the concern of, 'Is it being done at all?' We're looking for assurances that the intent of [the law] is being met."

This marks the first time that all eight Vermont mayors are publicly championing background checks. The coalition includes the mayors of St. Albans, Vergennes, Newport, Winooski, Burlington, Barre, Rutland and Montpelier.

Half of the 1,136 suicides in Vermont between 2001 and 2014 were committed using a firearm, according to the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center.

"There is this belief that we don't need to act in Vermont because it's a safe state, but we're not immune to gun violence," Montpelier Mayor John Hollar said. "It occurs on a regular basis in our communities."

Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard, who said he owns both a rifle and a shotgun for hunting, called on the public to pressure legislative candidates to support universal background checks. 

"I hope residents will bring this up as an issue that's important to them," Leonard said.

The mayors noted that recent polls suggest widespread support for universal background checks in Vermont. 

A Vermont Public Radio poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute in February found that 89 percent of respondents supported mandatory background checks for gun sales. A March 2015 poll from VTdigger.org and the Castleton Polling Institute found 77 percent support for the measure.

But the mayors were noncommittal on whether they would publicly pressure leaders of their own parties. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, among other Statehouse leaders, do not support universal background checks.

"Everyone individually will have to make that judgment," Hollar said.


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