Dozens of supporters of legislation that would require background checks on sales of all firearms in Vermont gathered in the Statehouse on Tuesday.
A measure has already been introduced in the Senate, and another bill is expected in the House. But despite strong support from outside the Statehouse, the legislation faces significant resistance among lawmakers and from the governor’s office.
Under the proposal, S.6, a background check would be required whenever firearms are transferred between individuals, unless it is between immediate family members or to a law enforcement agency or an active member of the armed forces.
Advocates say the bill would close a loophole: Currently, background checks are required only when guns are sold by licensed dealers. They’re not legally required for sales between individuals.
“Right now gun sales are treated differently depending on where the gun is purchased,” said Ann Braden, of the group Gun Sense Vermont. “This loophole makes it too easy for a criminal to buy a gun.”
She said people who would not pass a background check have been able to buy a gun, citing examples from around the state, including an affidavit that recorded an incarcerated man with a background of abuse contacting his son and asking him to purchase a gun in a private sale.
She said the change in policy at the state level would complement federal requirements.
“The federal government prohibits violent offenders from possessing guns, but to enforce that universal background checks are needed,” Braden said. “Fingers crossed is not a common-sense state policy.”
Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, who is co-sponsoring the forthcoming House bill, told the crowd that the measure will not eliminate gun violence but may reduce it.
“I can’t guarantee any law will work 100 percent of the time, but I can share that if this bill saves even one life it’s worth it,” Mrowicki said.
Representatives from groups including Amnesty International and the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence voiced support for the bill. A representative from the Vermont chapter of the National Association of Social Workers said the issue is “personal for us” after the shooting death of social worker Lara Sobel in Barre in 2015.
Opinion polls suggest support for universal background checks is strong in Vermont. A poll by Vermont Public Radio and Castleton Polling Institute in October found that 84 percent of respondents supported requiring checks for all sales.
Evan Hughes, of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said the initiative would make it very difficult for Vermonters looking to sell a gun privately. They would need to find a dealer willing to complete the background check and would need to pay a fee.
He also questioned whether it would be effective in stopping guns from getting into the wrong hands.
“Criminals are going to get firearms, they’re going to get whatever tools, contraband they need to do their crimes,” Hughes said. “Criminals don’t obey laws. That’s why they’re criminals.”
The legislation faces many obstacles, including from the Fifth Floor.
Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday he had not yet looked at the introduced legislation, but that he continues to hold the view he did during the campaign: “I’m not advocating for any changes to our gun laws,” he said.
“We’re one of the safest states in the nation,” he said. “We may be unique, but we don’t mind being unique.”
Instead, he said, efforts should be directed toward issues at the “root of the problem,” such as mental health and poverty.
Scott did not answer the question of whether he would veto a background check bill. He will let the process “work its way through,” he said. “But my position has not changed.”
The Senate bill was referred Tuesday to the Judiciary Committee, which spent weeks debating the issue for a bill on firearms in 2015.
“Usually we don’t bring things back up again right away,” committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said.
He noted that the panel voted down the proposal two years ago.
“It’s the same committee, and I don’t believe our views have changed,” Sears said. “I don’t intend to move any further at this point.”
If the House passes a bill, he said, the Senate committee would consider the issue.
In his view, the proposal would create a hassle and an expense for most people. It would require people looking to buy and sell a gun privately to go to a licensed dealer for a background check, for which they would likely be charged a fee.
“That will just lead to people who are otherwise not criminals being charged as criminals for giving a gun to a neighbor or whatever,” Sears said.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said she wasn’t aware of a bill in the House at this time and did not yet know if the panel would take it up.