A bill that would limit where people can carry guns in Vermont has passed a key Senate committee, but only after the panel slimmed down the proposal to cover just hospitals.
The bill, S.30, would have initially made it a misdemeanor crime to bring guns into hospitals, childcare facilities and publicly owned buildings. But the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday passed a version that applies only to hospitals while calling for a study of whether there's a need for greater restrictions at the Statehouse Capitol Complex.
The committee advanced the measure by a 3-1 margin, with the lone no vote cast by Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia). The committee's actual split may have been even closer: Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) was absent because of an illness but had consistently expressed opposition to the bill.
The bill will next come before the full Senate, where it is expected to pass given that 16 Democrats — a majority of the chamber — signed on to the initial version. It would then head to the House, where its fate is uncertain. Gov. Phil Scott has not weighed in on it.
Vermont law currently only prohibits the possession of firearms in schools and courthouses, while legislative rules ban guns from the Statehouse.
The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), said it came in response to a worrisome trend of people brandishing semiautomatic weapons during protests outside of statehouses and other government buildings across the country. Baruth proposed a similar version of the bill last session. Since then, the U.S. has experienced several high-profile confrontations, including the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of guns in America who seem to be itching to use them," Baruth told Seven Days on Thursday. "In open carry states, a lot of times, this translates into bringing them into places as a way of 'testing' their Second Amendment rights."
Baruth offered a scaled-back version of his proposal this session in hopes of finding broad consensus; several top state officials, including Attorney General T.J. Donovan, expressed support. But some of Baruth's colleagues on the Judiciary Committee felt the initial bill went too far, forcing him to walk it back even further.
The committee briefly debated the final proposal on Thursday, with Benning, a defense attorney, leading the opposition. The Republican senator argued that the bill would punish law-abiding citizens without actually make hospitals safer.
"Somebody who is mentally ill, bent on nefarious intent, is not going to respond to this," Benning said. "But those people who are not intending nefarious intent will be swept up in a new crime that we are creating."
And he said he hadn't heard enough evidence to suggest that Vermont even has a problem with guns in hospitals. Using "what if" arguments to justify further gun restrictions, he said, "is what we in the legal world call a slippery slope."
"It's not a very slippery slope if it takes 30 years to go from two locations to three," Baruth replied, a reference to the last time Vermont expanded its no-gun zone in the early 1990s. As for Benning's other argument, Baruth noted that no laws are expected to be 100 percent effective.
"What we're trying to do is set a very clear statewide standard, communicate our values broadly to our people, so that we reduce that behavior by as much as possible," he said.
It was unclear heading into Friday's meeting whether Baruth had enough votes to get the bill out of committee. Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), the committee's chair, had expressed support for the new version of the bill on Thursday, making it 2-1 in favor of the bill.
Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), meantime, had not said either way. When Baruth tried to gauge her stance prior to the vote, she said she had been weighing arguments on both sides.
"I think that someone bent on terrible destruction will come into the hospital if they want to no matter what, unless there's like screening devices at the door," she said. On the other hand, "I know that there are many people who are absolutely very, very scared, many of them expressing to me that they're afraid of many of the people who come into hospital emergency rooms ... some of whom are dealing with severe mental illness."
"I'm basing my vote on that," she said. She voted yes a few minutes later.