The Vermont Senate on Thursday advanced legislation that would impose a 24-hour waiting period on those purchasing handguns. The preliminary vote came despite opposition from gun-rights supporters, who claimed the bill would infringe upon their rights, and from those who said the restrictions weren't strict enough.
The 20-10 vote suggested that supporters in the Senate would be able to override a potential veto from Gov. Phil Scott, who has expressed opposition to new gun laws. The measure is expected to face a final vote in the Senate on Friday and would then move to the Vermont House.
All six Senate Republicans opposed the bill, as did Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) and Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans).
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), said he was proud that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, found middle ground between the two divergent positions. “I hope folks won’t be put off by the word compromise, because if we’ve come to that, we’re in deep trouble,” Sears said.
Sears, who had previously opposed the measure, said he learned from experts who testified before his committee that suicide attempts with guns are far more successful than by other means, and that those who make such attempts usually do so impulsively.
“The vast majority of the people who decide to commit suicide [do so] based on an impulse, and that decision was made within eight hours,” he said.
If enacted, the law would require gun buyers to wait a day after undergoing a federal criminal background check before taking possession of a firearm.
After the vote, the family of Andrew Black released a statement supporting the Senate's move. The 23-year-old Essex man shot and killed himself in December, hours after buying a gun.
"If this handgun purchase waiting period was the law last year I know it likely would have saved our son’s life,” Alyssa Black wrote. “I sincerely hope that this effort will save other families from experiencing the heartbreak we are going through."
Leading the opposition was Sen. Rodgers, who argued that those who commit mass shootings or suicide are often more influenced by social media than by gun access. “I believe the internet is much more dangerous than firearms are,” Rodgers said.
Similarly, far more teenagers are killed texting while driving than from guns, he said, and yet there is no rush to take phones away from them. He did not mention that lawmakers recently toughened laws against texting while driving.
The Senate rejected an amendment Rodgers offered that would have limited the waiting period to new gun owners. It did approve other suggestions he made, including allowing law enforcement officers from other states and those competing in organized shooting events to possess high-capacity magazines. He said the Second Amendment should not just be viewed as a right for sportsmen.
The Northeast Kingdom Democrat got some backup from Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who argued that he wouldn’t support a waiting period on a woman’s right to choose, nor would he support one on when newspaper reporters could file their stories.
Benning argued that, while suicides are tragic, there is no evidence that a waiting period would really work. “But make no mistake, it is an impediment placed in the path of someone who would choose to exercise their right to self-defense,” he said.
Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) said she was disappointed that the bill didn’t impose stricter rules. She grew up in and lives in a rural area and supports firearms for hunting and sport, she said, but is keenly aware of the dangers they present.
“I also know that guns pose a significant public health, domestic violence and public safety threat,” she said.
The mother of three school-aged children said she knows firsthand the impact gun violence — especially school shootings — is having on children today. “Our children are stressed and scared, and they have been demanding that we do something,” Hardy said.
She said she considered 24 hours too short of a waiting period, noting that many states require waits of a week or more. She also lamented the limitation to handguns, noting that someone could just as easily kill himself, herself or others with a rifle. She said she would support the bill out of the spirit of compromise Sears expressed.
“More change will come and I will be here in this chamber to help make it happen,” she said.