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.
“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.