A proposal to mandate waiting periods for gun purchases in Vermont faces an uncertain fate ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote Friday.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) sponsored the measure and is for it, while Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) plans to vote no. That leaves three Democrats — Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) and Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) — who have yet to state their positions on the legislation.
The votes of two undecideds will sway the outcome.
Baruth, who advocated for universal background checks for years before that policy became law in 2018, said he’s "not hard-selling anybody" on the bill.
“They’re going to look at the evidence and make up their minds, and we need two other votes,” Baruth said, adding that he believes the evidence clearly shows that waiting periods for gun sales could save lives. A second part of the bill would require guns to be safely locked up when not in the control of their owner.
White and Sears each said Thursday that they hadn't decided whether they will support the bill. Nitka said she'd made up her mind but wouldn't tip her hand to Seven Days. "I’m not telling you where I’m at," she said.
Friday is an important day on the legislative calendar known as crossover, the deadline by which policy-related bills must be passed by least one committee. The deadline for money-related legislation is one week later.
Any measure without a committee approval by the deadline is unable to advance unless lawmakers vote to make an exception.
Sears, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, said the panel plans to "vote some bills out" on Friday, but he didn’t specify whether he’d like to see Baruth’s gun legislation pass.
Baruth's bill was inspired by the death of 23-year-old Andrew Black, an Essex man who shot and killed himself in December hours after passing a background check and purchasing a gun. In Black's obit, his parents called for a waiting period on gun sales. They’re certain such a law could have saved their son’s life.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said he supports mandatory waiting periods as a means of reducing gun suicides in Vermont.
“I feel very strongly that we need to do what we can to reduce instances of suicide by firearm, especially for young people,” Ashe said. “I believe that a waiting period for firearm purchases will make a meaningful difference as people have a little bit of a cooling off period to get through situations which might be acute.”
If the bill is defeated in committee, Ashe suggested he could use his position as Senate president to force a vote on proposal.
“My hope is that by the end of tomorrow … that committee members will see what I have seen,” Ashe said. “And if the time comes and they have not reached that conclusion, then I’ll decide if I want to intervene to get that over [the line].”
Among committee members, only Baruth supports the "safe storage" component of the bill, according to Sears. The panel heard testimony that there are already “stiff penalties” for negligence that results in an injury, which gives prosecutors an avenue to charge people who are irresponsible with their firearms, Sears said.
Baruth acknowledged the weaker prospects of the safe storage concept, but said he’s hoping the committee will pass some version of his bill before the weekend.
“If you propose a multipart bill, you’re playing a fool’s game if you say, ‘I have to have everything I want or nothing,’” Baruth said.
He believes the bill would be worth passing even if the committee opts to remove a safe storage requirement, but he refused to speculate on the bill’s chances.
“Just have to trust and wait for the vote,” Baruth said.
Even if it does survive Friday’s committee vote, the bill’s passage is far from certain. Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday that he is “not enthusiastic” about passing new gun laws after passing a battery of reforms, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines, in 2018.
Scott sympathized with families like the Blacks who have experienced firearms tragedies, but said he is “not sure that this [bill] fixes what they want to fix.”
The governor said he isn’t confident the legislation would provide any additional protection for the numerous Vermont households that already have guns in them.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.