Lawmakers advance two gun bills with unanimous support

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Lawmakers advanced two bills Thursday that allow police to seize guns from people in certain situations, approving both with unanimous support.

The House approved a bill, S.221, that allows law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed to pose an “extreme risk” of danger to themselves or others on a vote of 136-0 Thursday afternoon.

A few hours earlier, the Senate voted 29-0 to advance H.422, which creates a process for law enforcement to remove firearms from people who are arrested or cited on domestic violence offenses.

“It’s exciting,” House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said. “It’s good work.”

She views the two bills as “part of a package” reforming the state’s gun laws. The House passed a major bill earlier this week that requires universal background checks, raises the age limit for buying a weapon, and other changes.

“To have them pass without one no vote is just amazing,” Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said of S.221 and H.422.

“Both bills, what they do I think, in common is keep firearms away from people that shouldn’t have them,” he said.

Asked about various pieces of legislation related to gun laws at a press conference earlier this week, Gov. Phil Scott said his focus was on passing H.422 and S.221.

The bill the Senate passed Thursday empowers police to remove firearms from the possession of people arrested for domestic violence offenses. Victims’ advocates say statistics show the period after police become involved in an abusive situation is particularly dangerous for the victim.

Under the language in H.422, law enforcement will be able to take firearms from the person accused of domestic violence. However, that person will be poised to get their weapon back at their arraignment, which must be held the next business day, unless a judge orders that it continue to be held.

The unanimous support for H.422 in the Senate Thursday was in stark contrast to the chilly reception an earlier version of the legislation received in the upper chamber last year. The House narrowly passed a version of the same bill that allowed police to seize and hold firearms for five days after an arrest, without a court order.

Sears said at the time he believed the bill “may in fact be unconstitutional.”

The new version addresses the concerns he and other members of the committee had, mainly through the arraignment process.

A few hours after the Senate vote, the House moved forward S. 221 with no floor debate.

Grad introduced the bill briefly, describing it to her colleagues as “an important tool to prevent gun violence, especially in terms of suicide prevention.”

Maxine Grad
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

The House broke briefly for parties to caucus. Republicans asked members of the House Judiciary Committee a few questions, and a few members remarked that they were inclined to support it and that it does not face opposition from sportsmen’s groups.

That legislation creates a civil court procedure where law enforcement can confiscate firearms from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Under the version of the bill the House approved, a judge can extend the period of time that the weapon can be held for up to six months — a change from the version of the bill the Senate, which capped the extension at 60 days.

Other changes the House made were technical adjustments.

The concept of “red flag” laws has become popular across the country with increased focus on preventing school shootings. Many other states are considering similar proposals.

Grad and Sears were both aware and supportive of the changes the other chamber made to each measure. They do not anticipate further revision.

Sears, who introduced S.221 last fall, said he was struck by the support for the proposal, which he anticipated could face resistance.

“This is the true response from the Legislature towards what happened in Parkland, Fair Haven and other incidents,” Sears said, referring to the deadly school shooting in Florida and the arrest of a Vermont teen allegedly planning to shoot up his former high school.

Both measures will be up for a final vote in each chamber Friday. They will each need to return to the opposite chamber for final approval before going to the governor.

Onto the next bill

Another bill with wider reaching gun-control provisions looks like it will be close behind S.221 and H.422 on the way to Scott.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Friday on S.55, the bill that raises the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, mandates background checks on private gun sales and, controversially, bans high-capacity magazines.

The Senate passed a narrower version of the bill earlier this month, and is now deciding whether to support provisions added by the House, including a ban on bump stocks.

During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, members of the panel said they were struggling with what they described as a rushed piece of legislation.

Sears said the committee was under pressure not to slow things down by making changes that would require a conference committee to iron out differences between the two chambers.

Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears listens to testimony on new gun control legislation at a public hearing Tuesday. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“I’ve never been in ths position in my years here,” he told the committee. “I’ve had a number of difficult votes that could have gone any way, but I’ve never been in a position where I’m frankly — I think a number of us are — we have serious concerns about the whole bill but especially about one section of the bill.”

That section is the provision added by the House that would ban high-capacity magazines — capping long guns at 10 bullets and pistols at 15. Another amendment has been added that would exempt manufacturers from the ban as long as they only sold to out-of-state buyers.

Sears said it didn’t make sense to decide something was too dangerous to buy, sell or possess yet still allow companies to make them in the state.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caldonia, said the committee was facing inevitable outrage from either gun rights advocates on one side or gun reform backers on the other.

“It should be said that all of us have been put in an extremely awkward position and it just has not been fun. And I’m sure whatever decisions are made moving forward we’ll all be continually eviscerated by various folks along the way,” he said.

Sears said that he expected the bill would ultimately pass on Friday.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who for years has been at the fore of efforts to expand background checks, also said he believed that S.55 had the votes to carry.

“If you’ve got a majority and it’s a pressing threat like this one, then I think the majority should seek its will, and I think that’s what we have,” Baruth said in an interview Thursday afternoon, noting that the House had passed the bill 89-54.

“That’s a pretty good margin in the House,” he said. “I think we have a majority in the Senate for the same language, and we’ll find out tomorrow.”

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