Legislative Report 2/25/2015 - Background Checks

Whenever legislation regulating firearms is proposed, no matter how sensible, it never fails to elicit a strong negative reaction from gun rights groups. A couple of weeks ago, the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on S.31, the bill relating to possession and transfer of firearms. The hearing was packed by both supporters and opponents, each distinguished by the colors they wore: green for supporters and hunter orange for opponents. It was clear that opponents outnumbered supporters by a large margin. Witnesses were called pretty much in alternating order of pro and con, and more than 30 people testified.

The objections to the legislation fell into 3 categories: 1) a misunderstanding of what is in the bill, 2) the contention that it violates the 2nd Amendment, and 3) that the background check provision would be unenforceable. So, here is what the bill does and does not do.

There are three provisions. The first makes it a crime in Vermont for a person convicted of a violent crime to possess a firearm. This is currently federal law. However, without this provision, the crime would have to be prosecuted in federal court by a federal prosecutor. This provision would allow prosecution by a States Attorney in the Vermont court system.

The second provision requires reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) persons who are judged in a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others, or who were found not responsible for a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness and are a danger to themselves or others.

The third provision requires a background check to be conducted on a buyer of a firearm before it could be sold to that person. There is an exemption if the firearm is transferred or sold to a family member or a law enforcement agency, or to an police officer or a member of the Armed Forces acting within the course of their official duties. It does not prohibit loaning a firearm to a friend for an afternoon of shooting or hunting as some opponents claimed. This is the most controversial provision, although most opponents see every part of the bill as an infringement on their constitutional rights. On the contrary, courts have upheld the constitutionality of background checks passed by 16 other states. Moreover, background checks are required when a gun is purchased through any federally licensed firearms dealer like a sporting goods store or gun shop. This bill merely extends the requirement to online and person-to-person sales and also closes the so-called "gun show loophole", where a private seller would not require a background check while a licensed dealer in the next booth would.

We all know of the increased prevalence of heroin trafficking. Studies have shown that guns obtained in Vermont are part of the currency of the drug trade coming from New York, Boston, Albany and other places with strong gun laws. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in 2013 alone 165 guns recovered in crimes in other states were traced back to Vermont. This may not seem like a lot, but it is significant considering the size of our population.

I do not object to guns or to the traditions of hunting and sport shooting. However, as a gun owner myself I support this legislation because it is necessary to help prevent firearms from getting into the hands of criminals and dangerously mentally ill persons. I have talked to many other gun owners who support this legislation as well because it makes common sense. As the NRA is fond of saying, "Guns don't kill people; people do." So, we have to take whatever steps we can to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people. Persons who can pass a background check when purchasing a gun from a dealer have nothing to fear from this legislation. As for enforceability, while there will always be an opportunity for a prohibited person to skirt the law by buying from an unscrupulous individual, responsible, law abiding gun owners will be helping to protect their fellow citizens when selling their unwanted guns with a background check as required by law.

I am a cosponsor of H.250, a companion bill to S.31 in the House.

I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).