UPDATED: House panel votes out bill proposing major changes to gun laws

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By , VTdigger.org

house panel has narrowly advanced legislation that would expand background checks to private firearms sales, prohibit those under 21 from purchasing a firearm, and ban high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 to approve bill S.55 Wednesday after a week of testimony. The bill could be taken up by the full House chamber as early as Friday.

A version of the bill passed the Senate earlier this month. That bill contained the provisions for wider background checks and increasing the age to buy a firearm.

The House panel decided to make some changes, including the limit on magazine size to 10 rounds of ammunition and a ban on bump stocks, a device that modifies semi-automatic rifles to speed up the firing ability.

The committee vote on the amended bill came down to the last member called on the roll, Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the committee chair. She broke the 5-5 tie by voting in favor of the legislation.

A breakdown of the vote on the overall bill shows members largely split along party lines. The four Republicans on the committee were joined in opposition by Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, while the other four Democrats and the lone Progressive on the committee cast their votes in support of the landmark legislation.

At the start of the legislative session in January, there seemed to be little appetite in the Statehouse around such a proposal, or others increasing gun restrictions.

That changed following a mass shooting last month at a school in Florida and a foiled plot by a Vermonter who police said had been planning an attack on his former high school in Fair Haven.

Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, praised committee members for pushing the expanding background check measure through, as well as the other provisions included in the bill.

“It was a heavy lift and I’m just really grateful,” she said outside the committee room after the vote.

Gun rights advocates have strongly opposed the gun restrictions in the bill, issuing a statement this week calling for greater input into the process, including a call for a public hearing on the matter.

In testimony, leaders of those groups used terms such as unconstitutional, unenforceable and, in some cases, nonsensical, to describe provisions in the bill.

Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland and the ranking member on the committee, told his colleagues after the vote that while he didn’t support the end result, he did not have a problem with the process.

“In my opinion the due process that was done here was very appropriate,” he said. “I certainly would have liked to have seen a different outcome, but it was all done right as far as the process goes.”

Rep Gary Viens, R-Newport, told his fellow committee members following the vote that he didn’t think the measure passed by the panel addressed the issue that he believed it was intended to.

“Nothing in this bill, as far as I’m concerned, addresses school safety,” he said.

Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, who introduced a sweeping amendment to the bill last week that called for even greater restrictions on firearms than eventually ended up part of the legislation, disagreed.

“I do believe that what we passed here will assist with respect to gun violence, including in schools,” he said.

“There are definitely broader things that we need to do with respect to school safety,” LaLonde added, “but I believe that this will present some restrictions, some barriers to some individuals who are trying to get a firearm for the purpose of causing harm.”

The provisions of the bill as passed by the committee include:

• Expanding background checks to include the private sales of firearms;

• Providing immunity to any licensed dealer who performs background checks in such a transfer from any civil or criminal liability. That immunity would not apply in the event of reckless or intentional misconduct by a licensed dealer.

• Increasing the age to buy a firearm in Vermont to 21, with exceptions for law enforcement and military members, including veterans, as well as a person who provides the seller with a certificate of completion of a Vermont hunter safety course or an equivalent hunter safety course that is approved by the commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

• Prohibiting a person from manufacturing, possessing, transferring, offering for sale, purchasing, receiving, or importing into the state a large capacity ammunition feeding device that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The possession of such magazines legally owned before the legislation goes into effect would be exempt.

• Banning bump stocks.

• Setting up a process for police to dispose of guns that are currently kept in storage but no longer part of an open case.

Among the measures that had been proposed by LaLonde as part of his amendment that he has since withdrew include:

• Banning assault-style firearms.

• Establishing a 10-day waiting period for gun sales.

• Requiring the locked storage of firearms.

The full breakdown of the committee vote:

Supporters: Reps. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington; Kimberly Jessup, D-Middlesex; Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington; Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington; Selene Colburn, P-Burlington; Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown

Opponents: Reps. Gary Viens, R-Newport; Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland; Janssen Willhoit, R-St. Johnsbury; Eileen Dickinson, R-St. Albans Town; Chip Conquest, D-Wells River

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