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Senator seeks to restrict semi-automatic weapons

  • Sen. Phil Baruth, center, and Sen. Joe Benning listen to testimony on proposed gun safety regulations during a committee meeting in Randolph, Vt., on March 12, 2019. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Published: 12/5/2019 10:07:02 PM
Modified: 12/5/2019 10:09:39 PM

One of the staunchest gun-control advocates in the Vermont Legislature will propose restricting the state’s open and concealed carry laws in 2020.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, said Tuesday he will introduce legislation that would prevent people from carrying semi-automatic weapons in areas including parks, stores, restaurants, airports, places of worship, auditoriums, theaters and child care facilities. It would also ban people from carrying semi-automatic firearms during political demonstrations.

Vermont has some of the least restrictive carry laws in the country. The only places the state currently prohibits people from bringing firearms are school grounds and state buildings. Unlike some states, Vermont does not require a permit to carry a firearm — concealed or open.

“Everybody’s sort of conditioned to accept the fact that in public, people are going to carry weapons that are designed to kill large numbers of human beings,” Baruth said.

The partial ban on where Vermonters can bring guns would not apply to handguns and rifles that are not semi-automatic. And under the legislation, the restrictions would not be in effect in all public places — downtowns, and public streets would not be included, for example.

“I don’t think we’ve reached a consensus on banning assault weapons,” Baruth said. “But I do think we’ve reached a consensus that we don’t want them in the public square.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was too early to say whether he would support the bill. But he said he’s “certainly more than happy to discuss” the legislation and sees some logic in it.

“It’s hard to argue why you need to carry an assault weapon at a football game,” he said.

Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, who has not yet reviewed the proposal, signaled openness to it Wednesday.

“I think, generally speaking, people would acknowledge that the places you just described are not ones that probably are appropriate for people to bring assault weapons to,” he said.

The proposal will come months after Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have established a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, a watered-down version of a bill Baruth proposed for 48-hour waiting periods on all firearms.

However, gun activists argue limiting where people can bring firearms also restricts their ability to protect themselves.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, an ardent gun rights supporter, called Baruth’s proposal “a non-starter.”

“They want to stop people from being able to carry guns for self-protection, and I can’t vote for that,” Rodgers said.

“Taking rights away from law-abiding citizens is not going to help,” he added. “Criminals are going to carry them because they don’t care about the law.”

Bill Moore, an advocate with Vermont Traditions Coalition, a pro-gun rights group, said the proposal “is designed to create criminals out of law abiding, constitutionally entitled people who carry firearms for protection outside the home.”

In 2020, Baruth also will revive legislation to establish a 48-hour waiting period for all firearms purchases, a measure that gun control activists and Democrats say helps prevent suicides. He proposed the same bill in 2019, which after negotiations, became a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases.

Scott vetoed the measure in June, arguing that the state had gone far enough when it enacted a slate of new gun measures in 2018. Scott broke with his party and his prior stance on gun control to support firearms restrictions, which expanded background checks to private sales, raised the age to purchase a firearm to 21, banned bump stocks and limited magazine size for handguns and rifles.

The bill the governor struck down earlier this year also included other gun safety measures that Scott has signaled he could support. One of the provisions in the bill would address what is known as the “Charleston loophole.”

That loophole allows those seeking to buy firearms to receive certain weapons before their background checks are completed. The loophole was what allowed the gunman in the deadly 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C., to obtain a firearm before he ultimately failed a background check.

Sears said he would rather work to pass the other measures that were struck down in the bill, including working to close the loophole, than bring back the waiting period provision.

“I was sorry the governor vetoed it,” Sears said of the waiting period bill. “But again, if your goal is to get another veto, then go ahead. But I would rather work on the governor’s office on doing what’s possible and doing something positive for the state of Vermont.”

The governor’s spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, said in an email that it’s too early for the governor to comment on Baruth’s gun proposals.

But, she added, “I’d reiterate that the governor has also said he believes we need to focus on ensuring the sweeping gun safety reforms we passed last year are working well and as intended, and on addressing the root causes of violence and suicide.”

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