MONTPELIER — Following hours of tense — sometimes terse — debate, the Vermont House advanced a bill Tuesday that would allow police to temporarily seize guns from accused domestic abusers.
The House gave the legislation preliminary approval on a voice vote to the measure, H.422, after voting 78-67 to approve the House Judiciary Committee’s changes. It will be up for final passage today.
The bill would allow law enforcement officers to confiscate firearms from the homes of those accused of domestic violence for up to five days. Despite finding enough support to pass the House, its prospects in the Senate appear murky. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has raised concerns about the bill.
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues the legislation “provides a cooling-off period” for those accused of domestic violence. He said the bill is “about providing protections to victims of domestic assault” and is not intended as a way to erode the rights of gun owners.
“This is not intended as a incremental step toward gun control in Vermont,” said Conquest, who described himself as a gun enthusiast. “If it was, I would not be standing here.”
Despite his attempt to thwart a full-throated debate over gun rights, one predictably emerged.
“I don’t know why we’re trying to attack Second Amendment rights … to save someone who would be saved by keeping (the accused) incarcerated,” said Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester.
Brennan said the bill is about “keeping guns locked up for five days, nobody knows where, and letting a guy out who’s still really mad.”
Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-White River Junction, spoke of “sleeping locked and loaded” because of her legal work representing victims of domestic abuse. She said those accused of domestic abuse threatened her for her work.
Buckholz said she supported the measure and viewed it as “helpful” to victims and even the accused “so they don’t do things they have to live with; their children have to live with.”
She also decried concerns raised by several Republican lawmakers that focused on the treatment and storage of confiscated guns.
“The fact that we’re talking about the destruction of guns I find really disturbing in this context,” she said. “I’m really disturbed that we’re talking about that part today. What we should be talking about is how to save families.”
Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, said he owns no guns and has no desire to. But he told his colleagues he tries to never vote in favor of more restrictions for those who do. He compared his opposition to restrictions on gun owners to his support over many years for women’s reproductive rights.
“I tried to defend basic rights regardless of who they’re going to hurt,” Poirier said. “I felt strongly that the Constitution gave women this basic right. I feel just as strongly about guns.”
“It may not make sense to you people, but it makes sense to me,” Poirier added.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, also spoke against the bill, arguing that it removes a key tenet in the state and country’s judicial system by allowing guns to be confiscated without a conviction or court order.
“ The assumption i s there is an assault that’s occurred,” she said. “Our fundamental presumption of innocence is being taken away from us by this bill.”
Rep. Gary Viens, R-Newport, a former police officer, said law enforcement officers should be trusted to take accused domestic abusers into custody if warranted and seek the removal of guns through existing legal channels.
“I believe in my heart that they know what they’re doing and they do an admirable job,” he said. “That’s why I’m voting no on this.”
For Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, supporting the bill was more personal. She told her colleagues of a former House page from her district whose mother was killed by a domestic partner.
“The presence of a gun in the home did not protect this mother, and the children will go through life with the scars of this crime of passion,” she said.