Top Vermont officials back gun prohibitions, but Senate action is uncertain

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, center, and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, of the Senate Judiciary Committee listen to testimony on proposed gun regulations during a committee meeting in March 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Several Vermont statewide officeholders on Wednesday threw their support behind a bill that would ban guns in hospitals, child care facilities and publicly owned buildings. But it’s unclear whether the legislation will garner the votes it needs to make it to the floor of the Vermont Senate. 

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, Treasurer Beth Pearce, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Auditor Doug Hoffer — all Democrats — testified in favor of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the five-member panel and is often a swing vote on firearms issues, said later that he was undecided on whether he would support the legislation. 

"It needs three votes, and I don't know if we have the votes at this point," Sears told VTDigger.

If the bill, S.30, were to clear the committee, it would stand a better chance on the Senate floor. Introduced by Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Burlington, it is cosponsored by another 15 members of the 30-member body, including Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham.

Baruth proposed similar legislation a year ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic reached Vermont. Last year’s version would have banned semi-automatic weapons in a variety of public spaces, including parks, restaurants and places of worship, in addition to publicly owned buildings, child care centers and hospitals. 

Baruth said he proposed the bill at that time in response to incidents around the U.S. in which people brought firearms into government buildings and used them "in an intimidating, sometimes threatening manner." 

Since then, Baruth said, such incidents have "intensified and increased in number" — most recently with the violent rioting in the U.S. Capitol earlier this month. He said that he stripped down his new proposal to "the absolute minimum that I thought everyone might be able to agree on." 

"I think if you were to ask the average Vermonter, they would say that those are resoundingly commonsense ideas, that you don't need and you don't want guns in those areas," Baruth said. 

Testifying in the committee on Wednesday, Donovan called the proposal a "commonsense approach to public safety, to reasonable gun regulations."

"It makes sense, and people have a right to feel safe and not to worry, and this issue of guns and intimidation is real," Donovan said. 

Under current Vermont law, firearms are only prohibited in schools and courthouses. Bringing a firearm into such buildings is a misdemeanor offense. Guns are banned from the Statehouse by legislative rule, not state law. 

Speaking in support of the bill, Condos said the state needed a consistent approach when it comes to deciding where firearms are allowed and where they are not.

TJ Donovan
TJ Donovan gives testimony on gun legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018. File photo by Colin Meyn/VTDigger

"I certainly recognize the right to have guns, but I think we have to be careful when we're saying that this building is exempt but this one isn't," the secretary of state said, adding, “Based on what has happened over the last two to three weeks, I support the bill.”

Condos also detailed threats targeting his office in the wake of the 2020 election. 

"The voicemails that we received, frankly, were, to put it bluntly, vulgar. They were intimidating,” he said, adding that some included references to firing squads.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who signed the state’s first major gun-control bills in 2018 but has since opposed new prohibitions, has not publicly weighed in on the legislation. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

During Wednesday’s committee meeting, some legislators raised concerns about the scope of the bill, questioning whether guns would be prohibited from cars in parking lots outside certain buildings.

Speaking about child care facilities, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said that leaving the legislation "vague so that anybody coming into the parking lot is automatically in violation" would be "very problematic." 

"We've got to walk through this very carefully if we're going to arrive at consensus," Benning said. "Because the Northeast Kingdom has child care facilities where people are coming and going, no nefarious intent, but they may have a weapon attached to the rack in the back of their pickup truck for whatever reason." 

Baruth said he agreed with Benning and thought that limiting the ban to child care facilities and playground areas would be sufficient. 

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, who has opposed previous gun-control measures, expressed concern about whether the bill would apply to state-owned highway rest areas and other parking lots.

In an interview, she said that she opposed broadening the bill to include other weapons, such as knives — an approach that was briefly discussed on Wednesday. 

Defender General Matthew Valerio noted that several existing state laws could apply in instances in which individuals brought firearms into public spaces in a threatening manner. These include statutes related to carrying a dangerous weapon with the intent to cause harm and reckless endangerment

Sears said he was undecided on the bill because he wanted to know whether the legislation was necessary or if there were “already laws on the books” to address the problem.

Sen. Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, speaks after Alyssa and Rob Black testified in favor of a waiting period for firearm purchases before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I don't think we need new laws if we've already got laws that would cover it,” Sears said in the interview. 

At the same time, he said he didn’t want those who work in hospital emergency rooms and state office buildings to be “unnecessarily fearful of what might happen.” 

Sears also said that he hadn’t been aware until recently that bans on firearms in buildings other than courts and schools were unenforceable. 

Baruth told the committee that, under current law, if an individual brought a gun into a hospital, child care center or even the Statehouse, police could not require them to leave. 

“They have no recourse. A police officer can't get rid of that gun,” Baruth said. “And the person can stand on their rights to have the gun in the environment.”

“So part of the idea is preventing people from bringing it in, the other half of it is once you've determined that somebody has a gun on that property, the statute, if we pass it, will give them the right to escort that person off the property,” he added.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to continue discussing the proposal in the coming weeks. 

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: xlanden@vtdigger.org

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