MONTPELIER — Proponents of a law to require background checks on all gun sales in Vermont launched a renewed effort Tuesday to achieve their goal, but roadblocks in their way in previous legislative sessions remain.
Gun Sense Vermont, a group pushing for universal background checks, hosted a State House news conference Tuesday to rally supporters. They promised to keep pushing for such a law despite stiff opposition from guns rights groups and even Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, introduced S.6, a bill that again calls for universal background checks and has several co-sponsors. Baruth submitted similar legislation in recent years but has been rebuffed. In 2015, a three-part bill was stripped of the universal background check section before it was passed.
“We got two-thirds of the loaf. We’re back for the other third,” he said.
On Tuesday, Baruth asked supporters who packed themselves into the State House’s Cedar Creek Room to help by expressing their support to the Senate Judiciary Committee where the bill will head for review.
“I’m hopeful that those members will also see the support that you represent,” he said.
Baruth said opponents of universal background checks also cite statistics that show Vermont to be among the safest states in the nation. He said those opponents should be asked why school children in Vermont practice for shooting scenarios if there is no problem with gun violence in Vermont.
“The question is, why are we in every school in the state of Vermont teaching lockdowns and active shooter drills? If there is no problem, why are we preparing my daughters in middle school and high school to evade shooters, to lockdown, and when they ask, “Why are we doing this,’ and they are told by their teachers, and I quote my daughter, ‘Because bad men make bad choices,’” Baruth said.
Rep. Johanna Donovan of Burlington and Rep. Mike Mrowicki of Putney said they plan to file companion legislation in the House. Donovan said Vermont should be addressing loopholes that allow guns to be sold or transferred without proper background checks.
Mrowicki called Vermont “a place of great hope” as he called for action.
“I’m here to hold on to that hope and also hold out that hope to you. It may not be today or this year or next year, but we are going to pass this bill,” Mrowicki said. “Hopefully that will happen before the next shooting of the week comes to Vermont. We will get these common sense laws that reflect life in the 21st century and common sense and the common good.”
Mrowicki acknowledged that Vermont is a safer state than most. But he pointed to the 2015 slaying of state social worker and scourge of drugs as reasons to try and prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who should not have them.
“I can’t guarantee any law will work 100 percent of the time but I can share that if this bill saves even one life, it is worth it, especially if that’s the life of a child and more so if that child is mine or yours,” he said.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, reiterated his support for universal background checks as he called for civility and understanding in the continuing debate.
“I think it’s really important to think abut how this discussion is going to unfold moving forward. One of the things that we thankfully heard across all the leadership last week as we came into these new roles that we have is that we must have a respectful discussion no matter how heated and how challenging that debate and discussion may be — that people come to these issues just as you do with deep passion for their positions and that what we stand for in Vermont is the opportunity to try to understand where each is coming from and to share where we’re coming from,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gun Sense President Ann Braden said Vermont’s current laws are simply not doing enough to protect Vermonters.
“Fingers crossed is not a common sense state policy,” she said. “I am proud to stand with so many others who are committed to helping these voices be heard in this building.”
Opponents of the bill are gearing up for another fight, too. Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, a group that has staked out a “no compromise” position on gun laws, said he has already begun distributing information to lawmakers to support their position.
“We just this morning delivered a universal background checks analysis to all the mailboxes. It’s 19 pages of real facts, Vermont numbers, things like that, and I think that should help quite a bit with the legislators who need it,” Cutler said. “From what I’m hearing around the building today, they don’t have much of a chance of getting this passed, but I plan on being up here for any hearings that happen.”
Cutler said the election of Republican Gov. Phil Scott should help them stave off any additional restrictions on gun purchases.
“Phil ran on a pro-gun stance. We talked to him numerous times. I trust him. I don’t think he’s going to go against us. I absolutely don’t,” he said.
Scott reiterated his position to a gaggle of reporters Tuesday but stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
“As I said during the campaign, I’m not advocating for any changes to our gun laws. I have not had the opportunity to look at the bill, but my position has been clear,” he said. “I think you can count on me to continue to advocate that we do not need to change our gun laws. I’ve been clear, concise. We’ll let the House and Senate do what they want, but I have no appetite for changing our gun laws.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he sees only a “slim” chance that a universal background checks bill will become law. The conditions that scuttled it two years ago, including his own opposition, remain in place, he said.
“I don’t see any difference. The fact remains that Vermont, according to the FBI, is the safest state in the nation in terms of violent crime. We have a lot of problems that we have to deal with in Vermont on a criminal justice basis and I think that preventing violence is one of the most important things we could do and I’m not sure that this bill would do that,” Sears said. “My committee is still made up of the same five members that we had two years ago and there are at least three votes in the committee against it, including my own.”
Sears allowed the background checks provision to pass through his committee despite a majority vote against it in 2015 in order to allow it to come to a vote on the Senate floor. Sears said he does not plan to allow for such a procedural maneuver to occur this year.
“I think it was a mistake,” Sears said.