Senate advances gun background checks; raising age limit on deck

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The Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill that would require universal background checks for the private sale of firearms in the state, a measure that had stalled before becoming a top priority in the wake of a school shooting in Florida and an alleged attempt in Vermont.

Following about two hours of at times emotional debate Thursday afternoon, senators passed second reading of an unrelated gun-storage bill that included the background check measure as an amendment. The vote on that amendment was 17 to 13.

Those opposing the amendment included the chamber’s seven Republican members along with six Democrats.

“Will this new more comprehensive background check require a little bit more from Vermont gun owners? Yes, in exactly the same way that airport security now requires more of us all,” said Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, the amendment’s sponsor.

It’s an inconvenience well worth it, he added, to help ensure public safety and to keep firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who voted against the amendment, questioned whether the legislation would enhance public safety, and worried it would criminalize law-abiding Vermonters who fail to seek out background checks before selling a firearm.

“I really don’t think a drug dealer from Holyoke, Mass., seeking to trade guns for drugs is going to do a background check when he arrives in Vermont,” said Sears, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the legislation has stalled in the past.

While background checks are currently required for new gun purchases, second-hand firearms can be sold between individuals without a review of the purchasers’ criminal background through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The amendment requires a federal background check for the private sale, trade, or gifting, of a firearm in the state. Exemptions would be made for military members, those in law enforcements and transfers of firearms among immediate family.

The Senate is set to take up the third and final reading of that bill Friday.

Phil Baruth
Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

But first on Friday, senators are expected to take up another amendment to the gun-storage bill, this one proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, which increase the legal age to buy a firearm in the state from 16 to 21.

That new age limit measure, which would also allow for exemptions for military and law enforcement personnel, appears poised to pass the 30-member Senate as 16 senators, including Ashe, have signed up to sponsor the amendment.

The legislation calls for maximum penalty of one year in jail and $500 fine for people illegally selling firearms.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, agreed with Sears that the background check legislation criminalizes law-abiding Vermonters.

“I think a whole lot of people won’t go through background checks and just sell a firearm to people they know,” Rodgers told his fellow senators. “What we’re going to do is make a whole lot of people who aren’t criminals [into] criminals.”

Rodgers then asked Baruth how anyone would know if he sold a gun to a fellow senator.

Baruth responded that it would be impossible to guarantee that the law would keep all people from selling a firearm without going through a background check.

But, he added, “Most people, most Vermonters, are law-abiding citizens.”

Background check legislations has been adamantly opposed by gun rights groups in the state, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Opponents contend the legislation would make it hard on Vermonters trying to selling guns privately. To complete such transaction, under the amendment, a person would need to find a dealer willing to complete the background check and would need to pay a “reasonable” fee.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, said she supported the background check amendment and was “grateful” the Senate was having the debate.

“If this was enacted, Vermonters would comply and Vermonters do obey the law,” she said on the Senate floor.

“No one bill is going to protect us fully from the violence that we see growing in our world and in Vermont,” Clarkson told her fellow senators. “Each bill takes a step at reducing violence.”

The Senate vote Thursday follows a foiled school shooting plot in Fair Haven last month that came on the heels of a mass school shooting in Florida.

Gun legislation quickly became a priority for the Democratically controlled Senate and House.

Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who previously had little appetite for any new gun legislation, has also said the chilling details outlined in a police affidavit in the Fair Haven case had “jolted” him, and he says everything is now on the table when it comes to gun legislation.

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott said “everything is on the table” with gun safety reform. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Baruth has long been a backer of background check legislation and was prime backer of the amendment Thursday on the Senate floor.

“Mass shootings are a viral phenomenon,” Baruth said in advocating for the background check legislation to his fellow senators, “and Vermont has caught that virus, like every other state in the union.”

Rodgers said to reduce gun violence, the government should be doing on the federal level to address health care needs of Americans, including funding for mental health and drug treatment.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said he didn’t think that the background check legislation was necessary, ticking off a list of mass shootings, from Las Vegas to Orlando, that he said would not have been prevented had such a system been in place.

Benning, who voted against the background check amendment, also talked about how advocates on both sides of the issues had inflamed the debate.

“We are not responsible, despite some of the messages that we’ve been getting, for having the blood of the next innocent victims on our hands,” he said. “We are struggling with a very difficult problem all of us know exists.”

A group of high school students who supported the background check legislation watched the Senate debate from the balcony.

“Ever since the Parkland (Florida) shooting I have been more impassioned about the issue of gun control,” said Emma Bauer, 18, a senior at Thetford Academy.

She said she had no interest in taking guns away from “responsible” gun owners, and recognized that hunting was as important to the culture of Vermont as maple syrup.

However, Bauer said, it was important to keep firearms out of the hands of those who would be disqualified after a background check.

Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs also watched the senators debate on Thursday.

“Do I think the bill will have impact on public safety whatsoever? None,” he said after the vote. “Criminals know they’re not going to pass a background check. They get someone with a clean record to buy it for them.”

Evan Hughes
Evan Hughes is with the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Asked Thursday at his weekly press conference whether he would support the background check legislation debated in the Senate, the governor said, “I think I said last week I’m amenable to considering any and all proposals.”

The governor last week voiced support for raising the age to purchase a firearm in Vermont to 21. However, Scott had proposed exemptions to that age requirement for members of the military and law enforcement as well as those who have completed a firearms class.

Ashe’s proposed amendment only includes the first two exemptions, but not the one for those who taken a firearms courses.

The governor said he would still consider the legislation, even without that exemption, though he would prefer it be included.

“I believe that if you have completed a hunter safety course, or a gun safety course, successfully you’d be given consideration,” the governor said at his press conference. “But again, I’ve come a long way and if that’s what comes to be at the end, I think I’d find a way to support that as well, but I’d like them to consider those other actions.”

Ashe said he didn’t include the exemption regarding the firearms classes, in part, because of questions regarding whether it would put a gun seller in the position of trying to verify the paperwork of a person who claims to completed such a course or training.

“I was actually quite proud of the tone of today’s debate,” Ashe said Thursday after the vote. “The conversations that we’ve been have with each other in the Senate, I think, reflected some of the difficult decision-making people had, both for and against.”

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