The Word in the House 2/7/2013 - Seeking Firearm Safety

You can’t turn on the TV news, open a newspaper, or visit a news website without hearing of incidents of gun violence on a near daily basis.  Senator Leahy’s Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on reinstituting an assault weapons ban.  Wayne Lapierre, president of the National Rifle Association, calls for armed guards in all of our schools.  State Senator Philip Baruth introduces a bill to ban assault weapons in Vermont and quickly retracts it after a flurry of opposition by Vermont gun enthusiasts.  The political climate in Vermont touching all things guns is a “third rail” that all politicians fear not only because of the long traditions of hunting and sport shooting, but because of the visceral reaction any talk of regulation illicits among gun owners.

However, despite this fear of reprisal, some members of the Vermont House, including myself, have dared to introduce a bill, H.124, that seeks to improve the safety of the citizens of Vermont while respecting the right of responsible citizens to own a firearm.  The introduction of H.124 has not unexpectedly drawn a flurry of emails and phone calls to the sponsors from across the state opposing the bill.  In this article I will explain the provisions of the bill and the reasons for them.

First, let me point out that I support the 2nd Amendment and gun ownership by law-abiding citizens.  The bill does not take away or infringe on that right. It is primarily focused on firearms safety, both to insure that firearms do not get into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and that those who do own them use them responsibly.  The bill:

  1. Proposes to prohibit large capacity magazines (holding more than 10 rounds). This is the most controversial section but it is a legitimate question to ask whether or not these magazines pose a public safety hazard.  On behalf of the many Vermonters who are outraged at the unprecedented number of mass killings in 2012 (and we are off to a rousing start in 2013), we need to ask the question and do our due diligence in investigating this issue.
  2. Requires background checks on firearms purchased at gun shows.  IF it is true that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” then we need to do all we can to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people like criminals.  Vermonters are generally responsible gun owners.  But a criminal from NY City or Boston or even Montreal can come to Vermont to buy guns when they would legally be prohibited from doing so otherwise.  Vermont is not an island.
  3. Puts into state statute the federal prohibitions on firearms possession.  This includes: felons, persons dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, domestic violence offenders, and persons legally judged to be a danger to themselves or others.  Our state and local law enforcement officers have no authority under state law to confiscate firearms prohibited by federal law. They can hold a person but need to call the federal authorities like the ATF or FBI in order to further detain and/or charge the offender.
  4. Requires a course on safe procedures for carrying a concealed firearm.  Just as we require a test to obtain a driver’s license to demonstrate the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, we want to ensure that anyone carrying a gun in public areas knows how and when to use it without endangering others.
  5. Requires the Vermont Department of Mental Health to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NCIC) System persons legally judged to be a danger to themselves or others.  This would prevent them from purchasing a firearm outside of Vermont.
  6. Repeals the prohibition on sale or use of gun silencers (suppressors.) Vermont is 1 of 7 states that does not allow silencers. This proposal is consistent with firearms safety.  Silencers or suppressors not only protect hearing, they also help prevent injuries to other parts of the face and neck. This provision may also help abate noise from firing ranges. It does not prevent the state from issuing rules prohibiting the use of silencers while hunting.

Like any other bill, this one will be vetted in committee and will probably undergo some changes.  Some provisions may not survive in the final version. In my opinion, these are reasonable requirements that enhance public safety without infringing on the 2nd Amendment.  All of these provisions have passed the test of constitutionality in other jurisdictions.  In spite of that, H.125 has aroused vocal opposition.  I hope this article will lead to civil and respectful discussion in our community and will prompt supporters of the bill as well as opponents to contact me or their own Representative with their opinion.  As a society we should not fear to discuss ways in which we can lessen the opportunities for gun violence that claims more than 11,000 victims each year in the United States.

Related: WCAX Investigates: Guns and Drugs