Speaker: Burlington's gun control measures conflict with Vermont law


Burlington's city attorney, however, said the charter change simply asks for an exception.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who must approve the changes made it clear they are bracing for an all-out gun debate in the Statehouse, though it will likely have to wait until next year.

Burlington voters Tuesday approved by a 2-to-1 margin three charter changes that would ban guns from any establishment with a liquor license, allow police to seize them after domestic abuse incidents and require firearms to be locked at all times.

It remains to be seen whether the local gun control measures can be approved by the Legislature without changing a state law that prohibits local governments from regulating firearms.

Burlington legislators Wednesday called on their colleagues at the Statehouse to respect the wishes of Burlingtonians and rubber stamp the charter.

But lawmakers said they know it will be anything but a slam dunk.

"It's a political football, whether it's this year or next year. It's an issue that's going to have a lot of politics surrounding it," Smith said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Listen to Smith on the Mark Johnson Show.

The charter changes specify that the ordinance be ruled an exception to a 1988 state law known as the sportsmen's bill of rights, which bars municipalities from regulating firearms. That law specifically says state law supersedes any municipal charter.

Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood on Wednesday said the charter is a state law as well, and asks for authorization for specific changes in Burlington.

"We're not saying give us an exception to let us make up laws on our own, we're saying go ahead and give us the authority to do just these limited things," she said.

Smith did not say the conflict is unresolvable, or that the charter proposal is unacceptable in principle.

"My view is that to resolve this issue we really have to go into the question of whether we need to amend the sportsmen's bill of rights," Smith said.

Evan Hughes, vice president of the group that fought against the charter changes, said he is aware that the charter changes conflict with state law.

"It's very unlikely that the Legislature is going grant Burlington an exemption," said Hughes, of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

That would set a dangerous precedent for municipalities to ask for other charter changes that violate other sections of state law, he said.

"We have a state statute that served us well. We have one of the safest states in the nation with regard to crime," he said.

Senate Pro Tempore John Campbell on Wednesday said action on the charter isn't likely this session because it needs vetting - and because this is an election year.

"I do not believe that we will have sufficient amount of time left in this biennium to provide the legislative oversight that a charter of this type would need," he said.

But statewide gun laws will surely be a major topic next year, he said.

"I believe it would be in everyone's best interest that we dealt with this in a comprehensive fashion," Campbell said.

In Vermont, municipal charter changes require legislative approval and the governor's signature. About 41 of the state's 246 cities and towns have charters, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos.

After Condos' office certifies the Burlington charter vote, copies will head to the Legislature and Attorney General's Office, he said. There was also a fourth charter change in Burlington about ward redistricting that also passed.

Charter changes, typically a routine measure that garner little attention or debate, will then be introduced as a bill and likely referred to the House Government Operations Committee.

Chairwoman Donna Sweaney on Wednesday did not rule out the possibility of taking up the charter change this session, but pointed out that only one week remains for lawmakers to pass bills from one chamber to the other if they are to have any chance of passage this session.

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Sweaney said the charter change will not get the rubber stamp. "We'll have a lot of discussion about it, I'm sure," she said.

There is no time limit for approving charter changes and whatever happens with the ordinance will set a precedent about local control versus state law, she said.

"It's a balancing act," Sweaney said.

Sweaney said she believes there should be more background checks for buying guns.

"I think there's a lot of issues, it's a statewide issue, it's a country-wide issue for me," she said.

Government Operations committee member Rep. Joanna Cole, D-Burlington, said she expects heavy lobbying on both sides of the issue.

"There's going to be a lot of fireworks, I suppose. And it's an election year," she said.

Cole received hate mail from gun-rights advocates last year in the midst of debate over a gun bill, she said.

"We're all going to have a heavy pounding, let's face it," she said.

Meanwhile, other Burlington legislators called on their colleagues to respect the wishes of their constituents.

"I'm going to push them to honor the will of Burlington voters, but it really is going to be a decision made by high-level Democrats," said Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington.

One of those Democrats, Rep. Johannah Donovan, also said lawmakers should respect Burlington voters' decision. She said she hopes the rest of her delegation will join in calling for action on the charter this session.

"I would imagine that it's going to be difficult," she said.

If the charter does make it to Gov. Peter Shumlin's desk, Donovan said he should sign it.

"I would again be very surprised if the governor would not approve what the voters of Burlington did," she said.

Asked about that scenario, Shumlin's office Wednesday referred to a Feb. 26 news conference in which the governor evaded the question.

"I'm supportive of local control. I didn't say that I agree with Burlington on this issue," said Shumlin, a supporter of gun rights.

Shumlin did, however, call last fall for facilities to house guns seized from domestic violence suspects.

Shumlin said Vermont's founders wisely set up the charter system so the Legislature could consider charter changes in a wider context.

Smith said he is concerned about creating a patchwork of gun laws across the state. It is unlikely that lawmakers will pass a charter change this year. He said there will be complicated and intense discussions about the charter change that will likely extend the discussion into next session.

"I believe that there is a place for some reasonable gun safety legislation that does not affect traditional hunting," the speaker said. "It may take more than eight weeks to square the circle on this one."

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on Wednesday told Vermont Public Radio the Legislature should take its time sorting through the matter, but said he will lobby legislators to make sure his city's wishes are respected.

"Certainly we will be working on this issue, and my sense is this issue will require some considerable debate in Montpelier," he said.

Several Burlington lawmakers said they hope the charter debate will spark a statewide conversation about gun policy in Vermont, which has among the most lax gun laws in the nation.

Rep. Jean O'Sullivan said if re-elected she will propose a statewide bill that mirrors the Burlington charter change allowing police to seize guns when there is reasonable suspicion of domestic violence.

"I'm fine with guns. I'm not fine with guns being used in an unsafe manner," she said. "This is no longer peaceful Vermont that has hunters. We're in the midst an epidemic of opiates and there are armed dealers, and it's scary. So Burlington is responding to it."


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