Poll Supports Gun Checks

Published: 8/8/2016 10:04:15 AM
Modified: 3/3/2015 12:00:00 AM
Montpelier — A new VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute survey shows overwhelming public support for universal background checks on private gun sales in Vermont, yet legislation to do just that has stalled.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they would support a law that would require all gun sales — except for those between relatives — to go through a criminal background check, while only 20 percent said they would oppose such a law.

Support among women was 86 percent and among Democrats it was 93 percent. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans said they would support universal background checks. The poll of 700 Vermonters was conducted Feb. 9-24.

If Vermont could put laws before voters using ballot initiatives, as is an option in most states, universal background checks likely would become law, according to the poll results.

For Ann Braden, executive director of Gun Sense Vermont, the results, which closely mirror polling her organization did in April, illustrate a disconnect between “what Vermonters want and what lawmakers are willing to take up.”

Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said it’s the result of an extremely vocal minority that opposes new gun laws with an intensity that is unmatched by broad, but more tepid, public support. Gun rights advocates write letters, pack committee rooms and public hearings. That makes it difficult or uncomfortable for politicians to oppose their position, he said.

Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said he doesn’t agree that there’s popular support for background checks, and he took issue with the way the poll question (“Would you support or oppose a law that would require all gun sales, except for those between relatives, to go through a criminal background check?”) was phrased.

“The way the question is posed, it doesn’t offer an alternative,” such as better enforcement of existing laws, he said. Asked to pick between the two, Vermonters, whom Hughes described as an “independent bunch,” would likely favor better enforcement, he said.

In addition, he said the question oversimplifies the issue. For example, it doesn’t explain that the parties to a private sale would be required to pay a fee for a federally licensed firearms dealer to conduct the background check.

There’s no economic motivation for a firearms dealer to participate because it would increase their insurance costs and “compete with their own stock,” meaning why would they help you sell a gun that’s sitting on their rack? according to Hughes.

Senate Pro Tempore Sen. John Campbell, D-Quechee, introduced legislation this year that would have required universal background checks for gun sales.

That measure has since been scrapped, but its other two sections requiring the state to report some mentally ill people to the FBI database and creating state laws to mirror federal gun laws could still pass this session.

Campbell said it wasn’t gun rights groups that sunk universal background checks, but rather opposition from law enforcement and two other top Democrats.

“What I find to be tremendously unfortunate is we had members of the law enforcement community come out against the background checks at the public hearing and privately,” he said.

Many law enforcement officers believe that background checks were “pure gun control” and infringe on constitutional rights, which Campbell said isn’t the case. The final blow came when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told Campbell background checks were unlikely to get the necessary votes there.

“Sears made his decision as to cutting that loose, and I was really quite displeased,” Campbell said.

Gun safety advocates like Braden say they have shifted their focus to the other two provisions, which Sears and his committee may pass as standalone legislation. But those could run into trouble when they land on the desk of another prominent Democrat, Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has said repeatedly that Vermont doesn’t need any new gun laws.

The poll also found Vermonters support the idea of reducing the number of local school boards by consolidating them into larger, regional systems, but by a much narrower margin. The VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute survey found that 48 percent of respondents approve of school board consolidation while 42 percent are opposed. Those surveyed strongly oppose the elimination of small school grants and oppose using the state income tax to help pay for public schools.

The survey also shows that more Vermonters now disapprove of Shumlin’s job performance than approve of it. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed disapprove of the job the third-term Democrat is doing, while 41 percent said they approve of Shumlin’s performance.

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