Sponsor: Gun Bill Will Change

Saturday, February 21, 2015
Montpelier — Top Senate Democrats working on a gun bill are likely to scrap a requirement that prospective buyers undergo a background check in private sales of firearms, according to its chief sponsor, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee.

Campbell said he was “very confident” that the bill may pass with its other provisions intact. One measure would make possession of a firearm a state-level crime for convicted felons. Another would mandate reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System people who have been determined by a court to pose a danger to themselves or others by reason of mental illness, or who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial as a result of mental illness.

“I always knew that the first part was going to be a little difficult — the background checks — but (in) these other two areas, I think there’s sufficient evidence to show how useful it can be and how this can and will save lives,” Campbell said in an interview Friday. “It’s a priority of mine and I would be extremely disappointed if it doesn’t get through in this session.”

Opposition from the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, along with Vermont gun owners and gun rights activists, much of which surfaced during a contentious and well-attended public hearing earlier this month, effectively sank the background checks provision, Campbell said. After the hearing, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told Campbell that the bill was unlikely to pass with the measure intact.

As a former law enforcement officer, Campbell said he saw “tremendous value and tremendous need” in making firearm possession for felons a crime under state law.

Though gun possession is a federal crime for convicted felons, U.S. attorneys are often too overloaded to pursue such a charge, Campbell said.

Support is mixed among state senators representing Upper Valley towns.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, supported the legislation and said that dropping the background checks would be “unfortunate.”

McCormack said opponents’ claims that the bill would violate provisions of the Vermont and U.S. constitutions were “wildly overblown.”

“(The opponents) have an exotic, bizarre reading of the Constitution,” he said, “and the fact that I go with the case law and 250 years of American history doesn’t mean that I’m an enemy of the Constitution.”

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow, said she “absolutely supported” the provision addressing gun ownership for the mentally ill deemed dangerous to themselves and others and was in agreement with the proposal to make it a crime under state law for a convicted felon to possess a gun. She sits on the Judiciary Committee with Sears, and in 2013, both senators sponsored a bill to report mentally ill persons deemed dangerous to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Nitka declined to say whether she supported background checks on private gun sales, saying she wouldn’t comment until her committee hears testimony on the matter.

Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, avoided offering a position in an interview Friday, saying his top priority was to balance the state budget and address finance problems related to the federal budget sequester.

“I’m not screwing around with gun bills, I’m not screwing around with marijuana bills, I’m not screwing around with beagle bills, I’m not screwing around with Latin mottoes,” he said.

Asked whether he’d support the three primary measures of the gun bill as they stood, he said, “If you want to make improvements in safety, community and all that kind of stuff, you’ve got to do things one at a time and not mix them all up, or all the money that gets poured into this from both sides out of state conflates something that you can never nail down.

“I’m a fairly liberal guy, but there are times when everybody has to jump off the cliff together, and no one will ... yet.”

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

The one Republican among the Upper Valley’s six state senators in Vermont, Joe Benning, of Lyndonville, has said publicly that he finds the bill unnecessary. He couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

The Judiciary Committee now has the bill, and though Sears, the chairman, said he had “no idea” what the bill’s future would be, he said his committee would soon take testimony on whether the state should make it a crime for felons to possess firearms, a provision he said he “may support.”

On whether the legislation was likely to pass in its pared-down form, Sears was less sanguine than Campbell.

“There are a lot of groups who were fighting the background-check portion of the bill who are now fighting all parts of the bill, so I thought they objected to the background check, (but) now they’re objecting to a piece that appeared to have general support,” he said. “I’m a little confused by them.”

To advise Sears’ committee on the facts surrounding gun violence and the mentally ill, as well as gun violence as a public health issue, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee has held hearings this week with doctors, judges and other experts and advocates.

On Friday, officials from the Vermont Medical Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, Gun Owners of Vermont, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and Gun Sense Vermont — a strong proponent of the bill — squeezed into the Statehouse’s tiny Health and Welfare meeting room to give testimony.

Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, argued against the remaining two provisions, saying that court psychologists were biased against gun owners and that the people most at risk of committing violent acts with guns already own them.

He said that if the goal was to prevent gun owners from taking their own lives, the law was unnecessary, as his organization had plans to adopt a suicide-by-gun prevention program from New Hampshire called the Gun Shop Project.

His voice catching, Cutler spoke of acquaintances of his, gun owners who are mentally ill but refuse to see a health professional because they fear being put on a list.

“I know people that need that kind of help,” he said. “They will not seek counseling for this very reason.”

Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, who is also one of the gun bill’s three sponsors, told Cutler that the measure only applies to court decisions. For people who see a private psychologist, she said, “Your shadow doesn’t cross that at all.” If people believe otherwise, education about the bill is the answer, she said.

The committee also discussed the difficulties of determining in court whether a mentally ill person is prone to violence.

Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson testified that finding a psychiatrist to declare a patient safe to remove from the list of people considered a danger to themselves or others would be “a major obstacle.” McCormack, who also sits on the committee, agreed, adding that the psychiatrist would be taking on great responsibility by doing so.

“You couldn’t say that with certainty about anyone in this room,” he said, gesturing at the roughly 16 legislators, testimony givers and onlookers in attendance.

Meanwhile, Campbell said he would press forward with what remained of the gun legislation, despite having heard predictions from many people, including some constituents, that he would lose his seat as a result of doing so.

“I’ve been told that my political career’s over because of this, and I’m more than happy to deal with that, but that’s how important it is,” Campbell said. “In politics, you’re told that if you really want to go forward, there are certain issues you don’t deal with when you’re in Vermont, and one of those has to do with gun control. People see this as gun control, whereas I see this as a law enforcement issue, a prosecution issue.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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