Landmark gun law moves ahead in marathon session in Vermont House

The Vermont House.

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MONTPELIER — A bill that makes sweeping changes to the state's gun laws, including expanding federal background checks to the private sale of firearms, has gained preliminary approval in the House after a debate that started in the morning and stretched into the evening Friday.

The gun restrictions contained in the legislation had little chance of making it to the House floor at the start of the legislative session in January, but moved to the forefront following a mass school shooting in Florida and an foiled plot of a school attack in Vermont, both last month.

The House voted 85-59 to approve the bill, S.55, which expands background checks to private firearms sales, prohibits those under 21 from purchasing a firearm, and bans high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition and bump stocks, a device that modifies semi-automatic rifles to increase the firing rate.

Seats in the balcony and along the House floor were nearly full when the debate started in the morning, with many gun rights supporters in the crowd sporting blaze orange pieces of clothing. About 10 hours later, when the legislation gained preliminary approval, only a few onlookers remained.

The third reading, which will include a final vote on the legislation, is set for Tuesday, and additional amendments are expected.

"The policies in this bill will help keep firearms away from those who intend harm and will reduce the lethality of firearms that may be misused," Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said on the floor in introducing the legislation.

"Recent events in Las Vegas, and Florida, and closer to home in Fair Haven, Vermont," he added, "underscore the threat to public safety when those who intend harm possess firearms."

Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, said right before the final roll call on the overall bill that the far-reaching changes on gun laws in Vermont represent a "culture shock."

"I personally believe that this is a lot of feel good," he said of the legislation before voting against it.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, saw it a different way.

"There's a sea change happening in this country," he said, "and the young people are leading the way."

Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, talked of his opposition to the legislation. "I can't agree with anything we did here today," he said. "We did a great disservice to Vermonters."

He said come election time in November voters will have their say.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, called it an emotional issue, but said he couldn't support the bill because it provides "false promises."

"This approach I don't agree with," he said, questioning the effectiveness of the legislation. "I don't think this bill is going to change one thing. I hope it does."

Gov. Phil Scott, at his press conference last week, indicated he'd support S.55.

The governor, who told reporters last month he was jolted by reading an affidavit in what police describe as a thwarted attack by an 18-year-old on his former high school in Fair Haven, said when it comes to gun legislation "everything's on the table."

The tone of the debate Friday on the House floor throughout the day was mostly civil, though at times testy, passionate and emotional. The vote was split mainly along party lines.

The Senate passed a pared-down version of the bill earlier this month. That bill contained the provisions for wider use of background checks and raising the age to buy a firearm in the state. The House bill will now be sent back to the Senate to see if that body concurs with the changes. If not, a conference committee would be established with representation from both bodies.

The House split the vote on the bill, allowing votes on several different provisions within it before a final vote on the overall legislation.

The measure regarding background checks drew the most debate.

Several lawmakers questioned whether the legislation would enhance public safety, saying that criminals wouldn't put themselves through background checks. They worried it would criminalize law-abiding Vermonters who fail to seek out background checks before selling a firearm.

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"I'm confident we can take this action under the Constitution. I'm less confident as to its effectiveness," Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said. "I'm going to vote no."

The bill, as passed by the House Friday, expands a federal background check for the private sale, trade or gifting of a firearm in the state. Exemptions would be made for military members, those in law enforcement and transfers of firearms among immediate family.

It also increases the legal age to buy a firearm in Vermont to 21, with exemptions for law enforcement officers, military members, veterans and those who has completed a Vermont hunter safety course, or another approved firearm safety course.

When the House debate moved to the age limit for buying guns, Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, argued against raising the age to buy a firearm to 21, saying that someone as young as 17 years old is able vote in the state.

"There's no way I'm going to support this," he said.

LaLonde said voting doesn't involve acquiring a lethal weapon, "despite what some might think."

The ban on high-capacity magazines exempts possession of those legally owned before the legislation goes into effect.

Brennan, of Colchester, spoke out against that 10-round limit for a magazine. He called that provision unenforceable, saying they do not have dates on them or come with serial numbers.

LaLonde responded there are other states that have similar bans, adding that having such a measure will reduce the number of places where they can be purchased in Vermont, and the number of the devices by extension.

Before the debate started on the magazine limit, Rep. Corey Parent, D-St. Albans, said he is working on an amendment to propose on Tuesday to alleviate the effect of that provision on a large Franklin County employer, Century International Arms, a firearms importer and manufacturer whose headquarters is in Florida.

The debate Friday will not be the last one that will be held in the Statehouse this session regarding gun legislation.

The House Judiciary Committee is currently considering a bill that unanimously passed the Senate, S.221. Known as "Red Flag" legislation, the measure would lay out a civil court process for authorities to follow to seize a firearm for up to 60 days from a person who is deemed a threat or danger to the themselves or others.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 on Friday to advance H.422 to the full Senate for consideration. That bill, known as the domestic violence gun bill, passed the House last year.

That bill would allow for police under certain conditions to seize a firearm from a person when they are arrested or cited into court on a domestic assault charge. At an arraignment to be held on the next business day a judge would consider the matter.

The bill will likely be sent to the full Senate on Tuesday for consideration, with an expectation that S.221 will be voted out of the House Judiciary Committee by that time, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said.

"It's been a tremendous process here working on two bills that will make a difference," the senator said of H.422 and S.221.

On S.55, the House cast votes Friday on separate parts of the bill before a final vote on the overall legislation. Here's a closer look at those votes:

- The vote to ban bump stocks was 119-25;

- The vote on expanding background checks was 83 to 61:

- The vote setting a 10-round magazine limit was 79-66;

- The vote on increasing the age to purchase a firearm to 21 was 88 to 56.