By Mike Dougherty
Members of the public filled every seat in the House chamber Tuesday night for a hearing on gun control legislation.
At the Statehouse — one of the few locations in Vermont, along with schools and courts, where carrying a firearm is prohibited — advocates and opponents traded testimony on legislation that would require universal background checks on gun sales and give law enforcement greater authority to confiscate weapons from violent individuals.
Hundreds of gun rights advocates, who spoke out against the new measures, wore blaze orange clothing. Supporters of the bills wore purple to signal advocacy for victims of domestic violence.
Signs directed speakers for and against the bills to line up at separate entrances to the building. When the House chamber was full, audience members spilled out into the halls and the cafeteria.
Representatives from both sides said the session was less hostile than the Legislature’s last hearing on gun control in 2015. But in over two hours of testimony, consensus on the need for new legislation was far from sight.
Lawmakers are currently considering three gun safety bills.
H.422, which passed the House last year, would allow police to confiscate weapons during domestic disputes. S.221 also requires violent individuals to relinquish firearms, but the bill mandates that authorities first get permission from a judge. S.6 establishes universal background checks, requiring secondhand gun sellers to review a purchaser’s criminal record through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Opponents said Vermont is consistently ranked one of the safest states in the nation, calling the new measures “a solution in search of a problem.” Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, said in his testimony that violence in Vermont was “not bad at all.”
Several gun owners who spoke warned of “incrementalism” — the likelihood that any minor restrictions on gun ownership or sales would lead to further legislative efforts to limit access to firearms.
“If this starts moving forward and passes, it’s a legal precedent and a slippery slope,” said Bob Readie of Warren.
“The ultimate agenda of the anti-gun crowd is to get their foot in the door to eliminate all guns,” said Devon Craig of Plainfield.
With the audience instructed to remain silent, gun rights advocates waved hats and orange flyers to signal support for their fellow speakers.
Several said that criminals who already obtain guns illegally would continue to evade new background check regulations. And Chris Bradley of Northfield said that because authorities don’t maintain a comprehensive gun ownership database, “enforcement will be next to impossible when it comes to trying to regulate a sale made over a kitchen table between lifelong friends.”
Some took the opportunity to advocate for the elimination of gun-free zones, a step that’s not included in any current legislation. “They actually create a victim-rich environment,” said William Robinson, a regional coordinator for Gun Owners of Vermont. “An armed society is a peaceful society.”
Survivors, social workers, physicians and other advocates shared personal stories of their experiences with violent abusers, pushing back on the argument that Vermont’s existing gun laws have kept the state safe. Their testimony mainly focused on H.422, the bill that would allow law enforcement to confiscate weapons during domestic violence situations.
“We know that one of the times that a domestic violence victim is most likely to be murdered is right after the involvement of law enforcement,” said Kelly Dougherty, the executive director of Steps to End Domestic Violence. The House bill would create a “temporary window of safety” in which a victim could seek outside help.
Peggy O’Neil, the executive director of WISE Upper Valley, shared the story of a mother she worked with, who was on the way to file an emergency protection order at the Windsor County courthouse when her boyfriend shot and killed her.
Anne Herz, from Woodstock, described her son Jonathan, who was shot and killed at 26 by a friend’s ex-boyfriend.
Bess Klassen-Landis, a retired public school teacher and art therapist, described finding her mother beaten, raped and fatally shot. The intruder was never found, and she said she’s lived ever since with the fear that he’ll track her down.
“What happened to my family could still happen in Vermont today,” she said. “To not take action to increase the safety of all Vermonters is unconscionable.”
Clai Lasher-Sommers, the executive director of GunSense Vermont, said she sees domestic violence survivors as the face of gun violence. Lasher-Sommers is also a survivor herself: Her stepfather beat her mother and brother throughout her childhood, and when she was 13 he shot her in the back.
Lasher-Sommers was not allowed to testify Tuesday — she lives five miles over the border in New Hampshire — but she said she would have told legislators to think of the regulations as a simple safety issue. “It’s no different than having a license for your car, or warning labels on Tylenol bottles.”
Dr. Mariah McNamara, a physician at UVM Medical Center, said the psychological impacts of domestic violence — stress, fear and loss of control — are often more severe and longer-lasting than the physical effects. Intimate partner homicide is a significant public health problem in Vermont, she said.
“The patients I have met truly feared for their lives while threatened, strangled or otherwise assaulted. We have no way to know which of the people who leave our emergency department will be murdered.”
Several people who spoke in favor of the legislation cited statistics that show the depth of the state and the country’s domestic violence problems, and the ways similar laws in other areas have reduced murder rates. Eighteen states currently allow police officers to remove weapons from the scene of a domestic violence incident.
The future of the gun control bills in the Legislature remains unclear.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, said he believes the Legislature is moving in the right direction. After getting pushback for proposing an assault weapons ban five years ago, he sponsored S.6 because he believes background checks have become a “common sense point of agreement” among Vermonters.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told VTDigger earlier this month that he continues to oppose universal background checks. The committee in 2015 voted 3-2 to oppose a universal background check measure, and those votes have not changed.
But Baruth said a 3-2 split is progress. “Five years ago, it was 5-0,” he said. “There’s a marked evolution, and I think it’s towards more gun safety, more gun sanity, and not away from respect for gun rights.”
Baruth said the number of supporters in the chamber on Tuesday night also signaled a shift. “If you went back five years, it really was a sea of blaze orange,” he said. “You’ll also notice senators and representatives supporting these bills now publicly. That’s a sea change from what it used to be.”
Speaking to reporters earlier on Tuesday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson reiterated her support for H.422. Johnson said confiscating weapons immediately during violent disputes would prevent family members from losing their lives.
“Vermont women are dying at the hands of abusers with guns,” she said. “Once somebody is killed, the family is beyond repair.”
Johnson said H.422 puts the onus on violent individuals to prevent domestic situations from escalating to the point where police would intervene. “If you are afraid of losing your guns, then you need to make sure to get the help you need as an abuser and keep your temper in check.”