Gov. Scott now open to reviewing gun laws

MONTPELIER — In the aftermath of the arrest of a man who allegedly plotted to shoot up a Fair Haven school, Gov. Phil Scott said he is open to reviewing the state's gun laws.

"We must determine if we are truly doing all we can to prevent violence," Scott said Friday.

Scott told reporters that he was "jolted" by the details of an investigation into an 18-year-old arrested Thursday for threatening to cause "mass casualties" at Fair Haven Union High School.

Jack Sawyer pleaded not guilty to charges including attempted first-degree murder and attempted aggravated assault Friday.

Scott said he was rattled by the situation in Fair Haven, which came in the wake of a shooting at a high school in Florida that left 17 people dead.

Scott, who said he "fiercely and strongly" supported constitutional rights including the Second Amendment, said it is time for "an honest and open and fact-based discussion about access to guns by those who shouldn't have them."

"I'm committed to working with the legislative leaders to identify policy changes that might better ensure the safety of our children and all Vermonters," he said.

His statement marks a shift from the governor's previous views on firearm policies.

Scott has consistently opposed changes to tighten Vermont's gun laws, a position he held as recently as Thursday in an interview with Seven Days — which Scott acknowledged when speaking with reporters on Friday.

Lawmakers are currently considering three measures that would reform Vermont's gun laws. A recent public hearing on the proposals drew a crowd of more than 1,000 to the Statehouse.

Asked about whether he supports any particular proposal, Scott said he believes "everything should be on the table at this point."

Scott mentioned a measure introduced by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, which he said he believes "has some merit." Sears' proposal, S.221, would establish a procedure for law enforcement to temporarily restrict some people from having firearms if the person poses a serious threat.

"I think it's a starting point to at least have that conversation," Scott said of the bill.

Asked specifically about S.6, a proposal to mandate background checks on all gun sales in Vermont, Scott repeated that all options should be under consideration. Under current law, sellers in private purchase are not required to check the buyer's record on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Scott said he believes the state also should review policies around mental health and address other "root causes" of violence.

"This conversation can't be just about guns," he said. "But having said that, we need, I need to be open-minded, objective, and at least consider anything that will protect our kids."

Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, welcomed Scott's comments, and said he looks forward to working with the governor. He noted he has been working on his proposal for some time. The committee began taking testimony on it earlier this week.

"It isn't something I came to last night or because of any particular incident," he said.

Sears said he does not want to be "sidetracked" by other legislation, including one that would require background checks for all gun purchases. He said he developed his proposal in part by expanding on a bill the House passed last year that would temporarily restrict some people accused of domestic violence from possessing firearms.

"My focus will be on those folks who present an extreme risk to go on a rampage, quite frankly," Sears said.

The committee will focus on the bill over the next few weeks. Sears hopes to complete the measure and move it through the Senate by an early March legislative deadline when legislation must pass one chamber in order to be considered by the other.

He expects the bill will change considerably through the legislative process, and said things may go more smoothly with Scott's change in position.

"I think it'll make our effort a little bit better to be able to work with the administration on it," Sears said. "That does add to it."

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, said in a statement that she supports the Second Amendment, but called for action to tighten some gun laws in the state.

"Common sense gun laws will free us from the gun violence that threatens our homes and our communities. Stronger gun laws protect our children and keep people alive," she said.

The House is considering a bill, H.422, that would allow police to confiscate guns immediately in domestic disputes and temporarily hold the firearms for five days. Another bill in the House Judiciary Committee, H.876, would restrict the sale of "bump stocks" that convert semi-automatic weapons to military-style automatic weapons.


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