Vermont Laws Regulating Firearms: Next Steps

This past summer, while driving to my granddaughter’s softball tournament in Connecticut, I had the occasion to drive through Newtown past the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The access to the school was still barricaded, a testament to the terrible crime that took place only nine months before when 20 children and six faculty members were gunned down. It was a stark reminder of what can happen when highly lethal weapons are misused by unstable people and criminals. Last month Gun Sense Vermont invited me to participate in a forum on gun violence in Vermont. Gun Sense Vermont is a statewide organization that promotes gun safety laws that respect the Second Amendment and protect children and communities by keeping guns out of the wrong hands. 

I spoke about existing Vermont laws pertaining to firearms and efforts to enact other sensible regulations designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people who pose a danger to themselves or others. The forum was well attended by both supporters of these efforts and people who advocate for the rights of gun owners. Vermonters have a long and strong tradition of hunting and sport shooting, which are honorable and beneficial sports in which firearms play an essential role. Many families own multiple rifles, shotguns and pistols and use them responsibly. 

However, there is also a dark side to the prevalence of firearms. From the thoughtless misuse that can result in a bystander getting killed by a stray bullet or the killing of other people’s cows and horses, to purposeful murders during domestic or neighbor disputes and the all-too-many suicides by young people who choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem, Vermont is not immune to gun violence. Compared to the rest of the country, gun violence incidents in Vermont may be few—but tell that to someone who lost a loved one due to gun violence under any of those circumstances.

We know that we can never prevent every tragedy from happening, but we have to ask if there is something we can do to reduce the likelihood that they’ll occur. According to the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Vermont’s suicide rate is above the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Vermonters between the ages of ten and 24—about nine per year on average. Also, since 25 percent of Vermont’s youth suffered serious depression in 2011, this population is at greater risk of attempted suicide.

But it’s not just about the suicide rate. It is easier for criminals to obtain guns in Vermont  than in neighboring states because transfers of firearms between individuals are not controlled, whether the transactions take place privately or at gun shows.  Straw purchases, in which an individual eligible to buy a firearm does so with the intent of providing it to an ineligible person, are also easier in Vermont than in New York or any other New England state except New Hampshire. 

Our goals should be to 
• keep guns out of the hands of known criminals,
• keep guns out of the hands of persons with a history of domestic abuse,
• keep guns out of the hands of persons who, as a result of mental illness, are judged to be a danger to themselves or others and 
• keep guns stored safely to prevent unsupervised access to them by our young people.

A need for better control
Early in the 2013 legislative session I joined with several of my colleagues in the Vermont House to co-sponsor bills that would seek to address these goals.

Why is legislation needed?  Let’s look at the laws that currently exist in Title 10 and Title 13 of Vermont Statutes. Title 10 prohibits a person from hunting with a machine gun of any kind or description or an auto-loading rifle with a magazine capacity of more than six cartridges. 
Title 13 prohibits possessing firearms on school property or in courthouses as well as selling or providing firearms to individuals under the age of 16 by anyone other than a parent or guardian. Nor can anyone under the age of 16 possess a handgun without the consent of a parent or guardian. Furthermore, Title 13 subjects the purchase of firearms by residents and non-residents to the provisions of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. 

So, other than restrictions on persons younger than 16, Vermont law does not regulate at all who can obtain a firearm in Vermont. This creates a disconnect between Vermont law and federal law. 
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the sale of firearms to convicted felons, domestic abusers, those determined by a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness, and other types of dangerous people; the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires a federal background check on anyone purchasing a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer. These federal acts are enforced primarily by the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency, or ATF, and only peripherally by local or state police if they apprehend a prohibited person during the commission of a crime. Furthermore, there is a well-known loophole in the federal law that permits sales between private individuals at gun shows and between residents of the same state without a background check.
Next steps
The NRA is fond of saying, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” Well, I agree! Then let’s plug those loopholes that allow prohibited persons to obtain guns. How do we do that?
First, a background check should be required for every transaction, retail or private, where gun ownership changes hands. Putting this into Vermont law will allow violations to be enforced and can be implemented using local and state police resources. While federal law prohibits private sales between residents of two different states without going through a licensed dealer, this has been extremely difficult to enforce. 

Furthermore, there is no limit to how many firearms can be purchased at one time. This makes it possible for persons from New York, Connecticut or Massachusetts, states with strict gun laws, to come to Vermont to stock up on guns that can then be transported to Boston or New York City or elsewhere and resold privately. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has stated that 85 percent of weapons recovered from crime scenes in the city are from out-of-state sources.

Second, Vermont law should require that persons who have been determined by an authoritative legal process to be dangerous or incompetent to manage their own affairs due to mental illness, or who have been committed to a mental institution, or who have been found incompetent to stand trial by reason of insanity should be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.  The same should be required for persons under restraining orders or who have been convicted of domestic violence.

Third, Vermont police should be given explicit authority to enforce any federal firearms laws. This would allow violators to be prosecuted under Vermont law instead of having to refer them to the federal court system. A related issue is what to do with weapons confiscated during commission of a crime. Today, most Vermont police departments do not have adequate or proper storage facilities for confiscated weapons. The State of Vermont should provide for one or more facilities that can be used for this purpose.

Fourth, we have to make it more difficult for teenagers who may be coping with school, friendship, bullying or depression issues from getting their hands on guns and taking their own lives. It should not be considered a burdensome requirement for guns to be stored safely—with trigger locks installed—in homes with children or where children are likely to visit. Most Vermont gun owners are responsible, but we hear all too often of such tragedies.

So, I’m convinced that we need to tighten up regulations on the sale of guns in Vermont and that we can do so without violating the second amendment of the Constitution, without infringing on the time-honored traditions of hunting and sport shooting, and in a way that will reduce the incidence of gun violence in Vermont.  Any legislation that has been or will be proposed will be thoroughly discussed by the appropriate committees in the Legislature. All sides will have the opportunity to provide input before a decision is made. We should not, however, be afraid to discuss any issue that involves making our communities safer.