In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, gun control is once again a hot-button issue. In particular, supporters are urging measures that would require states to report the names of mental health patients to the FBI for background checks prior to gun purchases. Vermont's respect for privacy rights, combined with the political power of its gun owners, makes it unlikely the state will join 22 others that have such laws.
Gov. James Douglas sees no reason to let the FBI know which Vermonters have been ordered by courts to undergo treatment for mental illnesses. And the Democrat-controlled state legislature apparently has little interest in intervening on this issue. "I haven't heard a word about it," State Rep. Anne Donahue says in regard to her fellow lawmakers' concerns about Vermont's status as a non-reporting state.
Donahue, a Northfield Republican, was herself hospitalized about 10 years ago for treatment of what she describes as "major depression."
A move requiring disclosure to the FBI of the names of Vermonters served with involuntary treatment orders would entail a "massive and sweeping enactment," Donahue says. "It would cover thousands of people with no particular reason to think they would behave violently."
About 200 involuntary treatment orders are issued annually for Vermonters who are judged to be a potential danger to themselves or others. Under federal law, these individuals are prohibited from possessing firearms. The purpose of reporting their names for background checks is to help ensure they do not obtain weapons illegally.
Privacy concerns should be paramount, Donahue suggests, warning that a names-reporting requirement might discourage some individuals from getting needed mental-health services.
But records pertaining to involuntary treatment orders are already publicly available, according to Vermont mental- health officials. That factor makes it hard to understand why Douglas would not take action that could reduce the chances of a Virginia Tech-type massacre here.
Jason Gibbs, the governor's press secretary, says that federal law does not specifically require states to report the names of involuntarily treated mental-health patients to the FBI for background checks. "It's the general view of this administration that there is no need to change our gun laws," Gibbs adds.
"It's profoundly irresponsible for anybody to say, after what happened at Virginia Tech, that records of this kind shouldn't be entered into the system," declares Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We have limited patience for those who think we as a society should not discriminate when a judge has defined somebody as dangerous to himself and others. It just defies common sense."
Hamm's group advocates strengthening federal and state gun-control laws. It takes its name from former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head during a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Brady subsequently became a leading campaigner for stricter provisions governing the purchase and possession of firearms.
The Brady Campaign gives Vermont a grade of D-minus for its "laws on shielding families from gun violence."
Douglas' spokesman is unfazed by that rating. "By some measures, Vermont ranks as the safest state in the country," Gibbs notes. "We're very comfortable with the quality of our public-safety policy."
The Brady Campaign's near-failing rating for Vermont is understandable, says Max Schlueter, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center, given that the state has "little or no gun laws in place." Schlueter further suggests that a names-reporting requirement would be "absolutely" appropriate for Vermont to adopt.
Dave Pidgeon, owner of a gun shop in New Haven, agrees. "You don't want the wrong person to get their hands on a weapon," Pidgeon says. "Just as a citizen, I would like to have every record made available, whether it's mental- or felony-related."
Vermont does provide the FBI with the names of people who are barred from purchasing guns because they have been convicted of felonies or are on the run from the law. The state also notifies the feds about Vermonters who have been served with court orders stemming from abuse cases.
Finally, Vermont makes its own criminal background checks of prospective gun purchasers. In these ways, the state already reviews both state and federal records with the aim of preventing criminals and other prohibited persons from buying guns.
Because of these existing provisions and Vermont's comparatively low incidence of gun violence, a names-reporting requirement seems unimportant to many in the state. Eight Vermonters were victims of homicides involving guns in 2005 - the most recent year for which statistics are available - compared with 11 in 2004 and 15 in 2003.
Critics also point out that, unlike Vermont, Virginia is among the 22 states that provide the FBI with the names of residents undergoing court-ordered mental health treatment. But that didn't prevent Seung-Hui Cho from buying the handguns he used to kill 32 members of the Virginia Tech community. Cho was able to make the purchases because Virginia law implied that a mentally ill individual had to be committed to an institution before his name could be furnished to the FBI for a background check.
Cho was judged mentally ill and dangerous but was ordered only to receive outpatient care.