Governor wants storage centers for guns seized from domestic violence suspects

Gov. Peter Shumlin, joined by lawmakers, police and advocates, announced plans to make it easier for police to seize guns from domestic violence defendants.

The plan hinges on drumming up money to build storage centers for defendants’ weapons once they’ve been seized.

Judges already have the authority to prohibit domestic violence defendants from possessing weapons — it’s up to judges to determine what types of weapons — as part of the protection orders they issue.

But, according to the governor, there’s been no good place to store what he described as “instruments of destruction,” and that, he says, limits law enforcement’s ability to make good on the judge’s order.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, flanked by law enforcement, lawmakers and advocates, announces his proposal in the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse. At left his Washington County Sheriff W. Samuel Hill. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin, flanked by law enforcement, lawmakers and advocates, announces his proposal in the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse. At left his Washington County Sheriff W. Samuel Hill. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

“There’s literally no place to put them,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of throwing these things in the basement of a sheriff’s office.”

The hitch, Shumlin said, is that sheriffs’ offices and gun dealers haven’t been given a financial incentive to invest in storage facilities for weapons.

The governor’s proposal, which he described as a “very simple change in statute,” would let federally licensed gun dealers and sheriffs levy a fee on the defendant for storing their weapons.

“It won’t solve all our problems. It’s a small step, a way of enforcing the existing law,” Shumlin said. “The current system is that we ask family members to do what the judges ask. They often end back up in the hands of the agitated and angry persons.”

Shumlin, a Democrat, has long opposed gun control proposals, and the Democratic leadership in the Vermont Legislature has also refused to consider any restrictions on guns. Lawmakers who attempted in the last session to introduce legislation on the subject after a mentally disturbed man gunned down 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut last December were ignored or politically censured.

Vermont has among the least restrictive gun control laws in the country. Vermonters can, for example, carry concealed guns without a permit. It is also permissible to carry guns on public property, with the exception of school grounds.

Federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from possessing weapons, but because Vermont does not have a mirror statute on the books, local law enforcement officers who apprehend known domestic violence offenders have no authority to seize their weapons. Only federal agents (a handful of whom work in the state) have that authority.

During the 2013 session, Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex Junction, made several unsuccessful legislative attempts to pass gun control laws. Among them was H.125, which would have created a repository for “unlawful firearms” in Essex. The building was sold before anything came of the bill.

Waite-Simpson, who was at the media event Thursday to support the proposal, told reporters, “This is about, not changing our gun laws, but really enforcing judicial orders.”

After the event, domestic violence advocates said the change hadn’t come about sooner because it had been viewed as a “the first baby step toward gun control.”

Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, “This is a policy that fell victim to the old gun laws. … Back in the bad old days, any piece of legislation with the four-letter word guns was a battleground.”

Shumlin wants to appropriate $75,000 to a fund that would provide loans to gun dealers and sheriffs to pay for storage facilities. The money would be paid back with new fees.

Some sheriffs’ offices have vacant jail cells that could be retrofitted into storage units with some simple additions, such as climate control.

The policy change won’t improve police officer’s ability to seize the weapons — it simply gives them a place to put them.

“The tracking down of the firearms is not going to change from its current state of doing the best we can to find those weapons and retrieve them,” Washington County Sheriff W. Samuel Hill said. “What this piece of legislation is going to help is a secure place to store those weapons once we have them.”

Storage facilities might have to be large, Hill said, because seizures sometimes turn up a number of weapons. “On one order, we took 15 firearms that were worth approximately $45,000,” he said.

Hill said the group backing the legislation hasn’t ironed out all of the details of what the storage system will look like, such as what the fees would be and whether there will be centralized storage locations. The group is looking at New Hampshire, which already has a storage fee system in place, for guidance.

The New Hampshire program is revenue neutral and doesn’t require a state appropriation, according to Heather Holter, coordinator of the Vermont Council on Domestic Violence.

Editor’s note: Anne Galloway contributed to this report in an update at 6:08 a.m. Oct. 4.

Alicia Freese

Comments

  1. Peter Liston :

    No brainer.

    Just do it.

  2. Walter Carpenter :

    I agree, Peter, “just do it.” I support it.

  3. David Black :

    The key word here is “suspect”. Not “convicted”. We are all suspect until proven otherwise.
    This is just another attempt of the Anti-gun folks to grab guns, circumnavigate the 2nd. Amendment and to make their leader happy.

  4. Patrick Cashman :

    If no charges are filed, or if charges are filed and suspect is found not guilty, are the fees returned? Otherwise the state would appear to be levying a fine for simply being accused of a crime.

    • Pat McGarry :

      Mr. Cashman- federal law prohibits those charged with a felony from possessing firearms while charges are pending. That said, there is no reason not to allow someone who is temporarily prohibited from possessing firearms from giving them to a friend or family member for safekeeping.

      • Sandra Bettis :

        i’m sure that works well.

        • Pat McGarry :

          Sandra- it works well in states with actual gun laws. Most states require that a firearm be transferred from one individual to another (whether it is a private sale, or one individual just picked up a felony charge) via a federally licensed firearms dealer, that a background check be done, and a record kept. It seems to work in states that require formal transfers of firearms.

  5. Sandra Bettis :

    i am curious – if we have no gun registrations in this state, how do we know if an abuser has a weapon? as far as charges and guilty vs not guilty, a restraining order is not a criminal offense, only a civil offense – are we talking restraining orders or actual convictions for domestic abuse? the abused is mosted vulnerable right after the restraining order is served.

    • Pat McGarry :

      Ms. Betts- there are two types of “restraining orders” in Vermont. Federal law prohibits an individual subject to a a final abuse prevention order issued under 15 VSA 1103 from possessing a firearm. Federal law does not prohibit an individual subject to an order against stalking or sexual assault issued under 12 VSA 178 from possessing a firearm.

  6. Mike Oltedal :

    Responding to a domestic violence call can be a nightmare for LEOs as they are the ones directly in harms way and any law that can help them stay safe should be passed.
    That said we still have to defend our 2nd Amendment rights and make sure the law does not interfere with those rights.
    The law can be written in a way that would please all with some careful wording , it should not be that big a deal.

  7. Why on earth are you looking for a place to store guns used or seized in domestic violence situations? Melt them down! I’m an avid gun supporter, but aren’t we trying to remove guns from situations where people have mental health issues? Who would want to own a gun with such a history except another someone with mental health issues?

  8. kevin lawrence :

    However, a storage facility will not change VT law to allow VSP or sheriffs to remove firearms from the possession of an alleged or convicted abuser. It’s still all a federal law that is in question here.

    • Pat McGarry :

      Kevin- it is often a Vermont Court order as well- whether a condition of release in a criminal case, or part of a restraining order, so that state officials have jurisdiction too.

  9. Patrick Cashman :

    Just to be clear; is it the contention of the above comments that if a state law enforcement officer sees an individual violating a federal law, there is absolutely nothing they can do? (This would appear to alleviate a lot of the immigration groups’ concerns).

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