The state Senate appears to be on course to pass legislation requiring universal background checks for gun purchases. The prospect seemed distant only a few days ago, but news of a narrowly averted mass school shooting has shaken the political landscape.
A background check bill, S.6, is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Three of its five members are known to oppose the bill, including committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington), so he hasn't brought it to a vote. But Sears says he is open to a procedural move allowing the full Senate to vote on the idea as soon as next week.
"I want to stay true to what I believe, but I don't want to hold up something that may have majority support," Sears said Wednesday. He added that he believes a universal background check bill would gain majority support in the Senate. "I think everything changed in Fair Haven, to be honest."
Last Thursday, 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney was detained after two people informed police of disturbing behavior and text messages indicating he planned to carry out a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. The police affidavit submitted in court was sobering in its detail.
Gov. Phil Scott reacted to the news with a substantial change in tone. Lawmakers heard from constituents over the weekend and returned to the Statehouse with gun issues suddenly atop everyone's agenda.
Sears said his committee will pass one gun-related measure this week: S.221, which would allow police to seek "extreme risk" court orders for anyone who might pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. After obtaining such an order, police could remove weapons from the person's possession.
Sears has no plans to bring the background check bill to a committee vote, but he would not object if other senators insert its language into a different bill through a floor amendment.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) confirmed that leadership is working out the details of such a move, which would likely happen next week. When lawmakers returned to work Tuesday, she said, "It was clear that people who wanted universal background checks needed to know that leadership was committed to holding a floor vote.
"It's gonna be a close vote," she added, floating the prospect of Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman having to play tiebreaker. "I haven't surveyed the caucus; we're giving people a chance to process everything that's happened."
In just the past few days, she said, senators who were unsure have shifted in favor of a background check bill. Currently, federal law requires background checks at gun shops but not for private sales. The Senate would be voting to end that exception.
Sears remains personally opposed to closing the private-sale loophole, saying that it would "criminalize behavior that's been going on in Vermont for 200 years." But he sees the writing on the wall.
"I'd like to see it move over to the House, let them deal with it, and see where it goes with the governor," Sears said.
Democratic House leaders appear confident that a background check bill — and Sears' extreme risk order bill — would pass in their chamber. Scott has previously opposed universal background checks, but on Friday he indicated a new openness to gun legislation.
"The landscape has changed, the way the #MeToo movement changed the conversation around sexual harassment," noted Balint. There's widespread sentiment among lawmakers that taking no action on guns and safety would be unacceptable.
The question is no longer, "Will the legislature pass any gun bills?" It's now, "Which gun bills will pass?"