Vermont Officials: New Laws Only Affect Future Gun Purchases

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2018

Montpelier — The three pieces of gun legislation that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law this week are intended to regulate future gun and accessory purchases, rather than impact people who already own them legally, according to state officials.

Scott, a Republican, took to the Statehouse steps on Wednesday and signed bills relating to background checks, purchase age, bump stocks and magazine capacity; protections for domestic violence victims; and prohibitions for people deemed an extreme risk by the courts.

“The bottom line is guns and magazines aren’t being taken away,” Scott’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Kelley, said this week. “It is just about future purchases.”

One bill, S.55, contains several provisions. Among them, it expands background checks to private sales, raises the minimum firearms purchase age to 21, limits the magazine capacity to 10 rounds for rifles and 15 for handguns, and bans the use of bump stocks, which increase the rate at which a gun fires.

The background check provision doesn’t apply to a transfer among immediate family members, according to the legislation.

Raising the minimum firearms purchase age also comes with some exceptions. A person under the age of 21 can purchase a firearm if he or she has completed an approved hunter safety course, or is a member of law enforcement or the armed forces.

“Gov. Scott ... did think there should be some exceptions. Hunting and outdoor sports are part of Vermont’s culture. If safety training and the kind of training that helps people understand the power of what they (are) doing, they should be allowed to continue to purchase,” Kelley said.

The purchase age only relates to long guns though, such as a rifles. Federal law already prohibits anyone under 21 years old from buying handguns.

In addition, the bill didn’t alter possession laws, so someone under that age can possess a long gun if it were given to them, for example.

Although high-capacity magazines for handguns are no longer available for purchase beginning on Oct. 1, any that were bought prior to that date are grandfathered in and can legally be owned and used, according to information provided by the Governor’s Office this week.

“S.55 does not ban, or require anyone to turn over, any type of firearm or magazine,” officials said.

Current owners of bump stocks, however, don’t have that luxury. It will be unlawful to possess and use bump stocks after Oct. 1.

S.55 and the two others bills emerged in the wake of an alleged school shooting plot in Fair Haven, Vt. At the time, the governor said the prospect that a school shooting could have happened in Vermont “jolted” him and led him to reassess if the state is “truly doing all we can to prevent violence.”

He asked the Legislature to move quickly on both H.422, which addresses guns and domestic violence, and S.211, regarding the removal of firearms or other dangerous weapons from individuals who are deemed at risk.

Both measures aim to “keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” Scott said.

Out of those discussions also came provisions contained in S.55, most of which went into effect upon passage, said Kelley, the spokeswoman.

The measure authorizing law enforcement responding to a domestic violence situation to remove firearms from the home will take effect on Sept. 1.

The legislation gives police officers the option of removing firearms from a person who is either arrested or cited for an alleged act of domestic violence. That person then would be arraigned in court on the next business day unless for “good cause shown,” the law states.

There are several reasons why an officer could take a person’s firearm in that situation, including if it is evidence in a criminal case or if removal is necessary to protect the officer, the victim, the person being arrested or a family member, according to the legislation. At the arraignment, the court would issue an order releasing the firearms back, but there are several reasons a gun owner wouldn’t be eligible to have them returned, such as if the court imposes a condition requiring the defendant not possess a firearm while the case is pending.

“The new thing here ... is the purpose for the seizure doesn’t have to be related to the crime that just occurred,” Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill said.

Scott also urged the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow prosecutors to restrict a person’s access to guns if that person shows violent or threatening behavior toward themselves or others.

That measure is law, as it became effective immediately.

Now, state prosecutors have the ability to ask a judge to issue an “extreme risk protection order,” which would prohibit a person from “purchasing, possessing, or receiving a dangerous weapon, or having a dangerous weapon within the person’s custody or control.”

The official must file an affidavit in court explaining why removing an individual’s firearms is necessary, and a hearing would be held. If the person is deemed a risk, his or her firearms would be removed until the order’s expiration date is reached. The person has the right to appeal.

The order can be extended by a period of up to six months, the legislation says. Jaye Pershing Johnson, the governor’s legal counsel, said the order can be extended beyond that six months, or however long that person is deemed a risk by the court.

When the order expires, the custodian of the surrendered firearm “shall make it available” to the owner within three business days of a court order.

Cahill, the prosecutor, said he supports the measure.

“Our business is public safety. If we have the opportunity to use an extreme protection order to prevent a school shooting, a domestic homicide, or a suicide, we will take it,” Cahill said.

At Wednesday’s event, attendees were divided on Scott’s decision to sign the bills.

Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, was among those who denounced the governor’s decision.

Cutler said he voted for Scott in 2016, but now no longer supports him.

Cutler, of Westminster, opposes all of S.55’s provisions and asserted that most of them could lead a normally law-abiding citizen to be arrested or jailed. There are repercussions for people who violate the laws.

For example, if an individual transferred a gun to a longtime friend without going to a licensed firearms dealer for a background check, the person who sold the gun could be jailed for up to a year or fined up to $500, or both.

“Our biggest fear on something like this is someone going to jail without criminal intent,” he said.

In its beginning stages, Cutler said, he supported the bill to remove firearms from a person who is deemed at risk to themselves or others. But when an amendment was made that took away a person’s constitutional right to an attorney beforehand, he said, he and others changed their position.

For the same reason — constitutionality — he doesn’t support the immediate removal of firearms from a person who is arrested or cited on a domestic violence allegation.

“Again, a person has a right to his day in court,” he said. “This one allows a police officer to walk into a home on a minor complaint ... and remove property. That’s a bad thing.”

Cutler also said he doesn’t believe the new restrictions are needed in Vermont.

“Vermont is pretty much one of the safest places in the world. For 227 years, we have never had a bad crime problem up here and we still don’t,” he said.

Individuals who supported Scott’s signatures also were out in full force on Wednesday. Among them was Anne Herz, of Woodstock, who lost her son to gun violence in northern Vermont in 1991.

Herz, a member of Gun Sense Vermont, said she didn’t back Scott in 2016, but that her opinion has changed dramatically.

“I cannot say enough about him and the other legislators,” Herz said, commenting on how quickly the bills passed.

Keeping guns out of the hands of someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is crucial, as is performing background checks, she said.

“I just think it is common sense to pass some of these laws,” she said.

Meanwhile, some gun rights proponents have said they may challenge the constitutionality of some of the new laws in court.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.