MONTPELIER -- State senators Friday questioned if there is actually a problem with firearms storage that they need legislation to solve.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is taking testimony on a section of the fee bill that creates a system for law enforcement officials to store weapons owned by people who have been issued a relief from abuse order.

The measure is controversial. Some gun rights groups oppose it and others, who initially supported it, said they are unhappy with the version that passed the House.

The Senate is now attempting to remedy the measure, which Gov. Peter Shumlin backs. The Shumlin administration Wednesday proposed an amendment that gun groups said gets them closer to a bill they can support.

The legislation is a top policy priority this session for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The Network says judges do not order guns to be taken away from people subject to relief from abuse orders because law enforcement has nowhere to put them.

The gun storage measure is part of a larger fee bill before the Senate Finance Committee. Fee bills typically do not contain policy changes, but this is an exception.

The Judiciary Committee next Thursday plans to hold a final hearing on the matter and forward its recommendations to the Finance Committee, Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Friday.

The Judiciary Committee on Friday asked Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, after an unrelated discussion, whether he has room to store guns long-term in domestic abuse cases.

"Sort of," Schirling said.

The chief said Burlington police have a gun storage locker for firearms seized from domestic violence defendants. He is not sure how many guns are there for domestic violence cases, Schirling said. The department's storage room is about 4,000 square feet and contains other kinds of evidence. Other departments only have small closets, he said.

"Do we have adequate space? Not really. But we just keep stacking them up. Many of them are up in the rafters," he said.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling. (VTDigger file photo)
Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling. (VTDigger file photo) (Josh Larkin)

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, asked whether Burlington police have ever seen a case where a judge said not to take guns from someone because police had no storage.

"No, we'll annex the building before we do that," Schirling said.

That prompted Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, to ask: "Do we actually have a problem?"

"Yes," Sears responded. "If we don't pass this, we have a problem."

Shumlin's office last year worked out an agreement between gun rights groups, specifically the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, to gain support for the measure.

The Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said there is absolutely a need for the measure.

"There is a problem," Sears said. "Sarah Kenney (of the Network) and her group have described the problem. I do think that it became overly complex the way that it was drafted when it got to us and I do think we can solve it and make it simple."

Kenney on Friday repeated the need for the gun storage provision.

"There is definitely a problem with space for storage of relinquished firearms - we've been hearing about this problem from courts and law enforcement in this state for years," said Kenney, associate director of public policy for the Network, in an email Friday.

She referred to a 2013 news report about a Washington, Vt., woman whose husband was subject to a temporary relief from abuse order but retrieved his guns from his son and killed himself in front of his wife.

The Washington County Sheriff's office in that report said although space is limited, his department always removes guns when the court orders confiscation. Sheriff Sam Hill said making space for weapons has been a problem. His department wants to avoid the option of allowing a family member to store firearms.

Michael Schirling, the Burlington police chief, said he supports the gun storage measure.

"I think the bill as drafted, where there's this option of either contracting with sheriffs or federally licensed firearms dealers (to store the guns,) makes sense. I don't think there's going to be huge volume there, but it would be a useful addition to the options," Schirling said.

Judges order firearms to be stored with friends on "some rare" instances, but it is a risky option, he said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, frowns on that, he said.

There is generally only a specific provision in conditions of release to relinquish firearms if there is a weapon involved in an incident or if police know there are firearms in the house, Schirling said.

There is also debate over whether people should be required to relinquish guns, and pay for their storage, during temporary orders.

Sears on Friday said he does not believe in charging a fee to someone subject to a temporary order.

"In my view, you can't charge somebody a fee when you haven't had a final decision," Sears said.

Although the title of this section of the fee bill cites "unlawful firearms," the language in the section says it applies to "firearms, ammunition or other weapons."

Shumlin on Thursday said all "dangerous objects" - even baseball bats - should be taken out of the hands of abusers.

The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard from the Orange County Sheriff, who said his department sees about 10 or 12 cases a year where firearms are asked to be turned over but there are no guns in his evidence locker right now.

The Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston said he has guns in his locker but didn't know how many.

Kenney said victims are frustrated and scared when courts either don't order firearms to be relinquished or order them turned over to a friend or family member.

Judges tell the network they don't order them to be seized because law enforcement have nowhere to put them, Kenney said.

The Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission report from 2009, which Kenney provided, recommends the Legislature adopt a law governing the relinquishment and storage of guns for defendants subject to a final relief from abuse orders.

The 2011 version of that study also recommended a law about storing firearms. The 2012 study said the Center for Crime Victim Services was working to establish a pilot storage facility in one county. The 2013 study is silent on the subject.

Kenney said there was going to be a pilot in 2012 using one-time federal funding, but no law enforcement agencies agreed to participate without legislation that allowed them to charge a fee to make the program sustainable.

After that, the group asked for the governor's help in getting the law passed, she said.

The governor's liaison, Louis Porter, worked on the measure with the Network and the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

The parties agreed to put the measure in the fee bill, H.735, because it creates a fee to be charged to gun owners to store their firearms. They also put it in the fee bill because making it part of a larger bill would help to avoid other gun-related amendments, the Federation has said.