The bill that drew the most attention and discussion this week was S.141, a bill relating to possession of firearms. This bill came over from the Senate, was reviewed and amended by House Judiciary, and reported on the Floor on Thursday and Friday.
Over the years, I have been resistant to making changes to Vermont’s gun laws. We have a strong tradition of hunting and responsible gun ownership. Changes have been occurring, however, that have pointed to a need to rethink the issue including an increased drug trade and suicide rate. Vermont has the 15th highest suicide rate in the country and the majority of those suicides are carried out with firearms. From 1994 to 2013, one half of all homicides were related to domestic violence and 56% were carried out with firearms.
What does the bill do? In essence, it mirrors the federal law. It makes it illegal on a State basis for people who have committed certain violent crimes from possessing a firearm. We are the last state in the nation to enact such a law. Violent crimes that would apply include stalking, domestic assault, sexual assault, murder, aggravated assault, manslaughter, assault and robbery, arson causing death, kidnapping, and unlawful restraint. Also included are offenses involving sexual exploitation of children; the selling, dispensing, or trafficking of drugs; and a conviction of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance other than marijuana. Exempted from the list are lewd or lascivious conduct; recklessly endangering another person; driving under the influence with either death or bodily injury resulting; careless or negligent operation resulting in serious bodily injury or death; leaving the scene of an accident; and a misdemeanor violation relating to abuse, neglect, and exploitation of vulnerable adults. Not included in the definition of “firearm” are antiques, replicas, or muzzle loading rifles, shotguns, or pistols.
The bill also restricts access to firearms, known as a firearms disability, to those with serious mental illness who are judged to be a danger to themselves or others and are involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. Names are placed on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICBCS), which prevents the purchase of a gun. The bill does allow for these individuals to petition the Family Division of the Superior Court to regain the right to possess firearms. If neither the State’s Attorney nor the Attorney General object within six months after the petition is filed, the Court will consider several factors including the petitioner’s mental health status, the circumstances regarding the firearms disability, and the petitioner’s reputation demonstrated by character witness statements or other character evidence.
When the bill came to the House, it had an 18-month waiting period after a person was deemed no longer in need of treatment to start the petition process – the House eliminated that waiting period. Initially, the House changed the standard of evidence needed to demonstrate eligibility from “a preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence”, which is a higher standard to meet. The committee chose to return to “a preponderance of evidence” after concern was voiced about the higher standard.
The bill requires a report by the Department of Mental Health on the creation of a Vermont version of the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project. The Project came together after three suicides occurred within five days in 2009 – all of the guns had been purchased at the same gun shop. A collaboration of gun shop owners and the NH Firearms Safety Coalition looked at ways to reduce the number of suicides. 85% of suicides are fatal when a firearm is used while only 2% when drugs are used. Alarmingly, suicides outnumber homicides in this country by 50% – there are 105 suicides every day.
The goal of the Project is to educate gun shop owners on what to look for in customers to determine if they are at risk for suicide and potentially not sell them a gun. The other challenge is the recognition that 90% of suicides occur with not new, but existing firearms. If you are concerned about someone, the advice is to voice that concern to them and offer to hold on to their guns. This form of “self-regulation” is a positive step and, hopefully, it will be replicated in Vermont.
In the last few years, we have lost at least two Windham residents to firearm suicides. In both cases, they were good friends of our family – their loss left great holes in our lives and caused us to wonder what we could have done to help them. It is impossible to tell if the gun shop provision would have saved them but if it helps even one person, it is worth it.
Another consideration was an incident that happened in Windham several years ago where the change to State jurisdiction would have significantly helped and alleviated considerable pain and suffering for the children in a troubled family.
To be clear, this will not affect veterans or others who are seeking help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or any other serious mental illness – one has to be involuntarily committed to be placed on the NICBCS list. It would seem that responsible gun owners would not want people who are a danger to themselves or others to have access to guns because of the black-eye that could be (and has been) given to the gun owners who are responsible.
As I considered the bill, the withdrawal of objection by the VT Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the VT Traditions Coalition had an impact on my vote.
It is also understood that passage of this bill does not mean that future unfortunate events aren’t going to happen but if it prevents one tragic incident, it will be worth it.