In a vote that largely fell along party lines, the Vermont House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would place new restrictions on gun storage and impose a 72-hour waiting period on gun purchases.
The bill, H.230, also would provide a new route for families and household members to petition courts for gun removal as part of an “extreme risk protection order.”
In three separate votes, the Democratic majority held together. Notably, support never exceeded a veto-proof 100 votes, though several lawmakers had left by the second vote. Gov. Phil Scott said at a recent press conference that new gun restrictions are a “non-starter” for him. His veto of a 24-hour waiting period in 2019 was not overcome.
The bill is up for final approval in the House on Thursday, after which it will head to the Senate.
From the outset, Wednesday's debate centered around the constitutionality of the bill, with both sides quoting directly from two precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the 2008 Heller and 2022 Bruen cases, to back their point of view.
“At this time, it is not clear how the courts binding on Vermont will rule on such firearm regulations, and it may not be clear for a while,” acknowledged Judiciary Committee Chair Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, who spent much of the debate on his feet being questioned.
The Bruen decision rejected a standard that allowed some restrictions to the Second Amendment if they are balanced by a state’s interest in protecting public health and safety. Instead, any restriction must be “consistent with the nation’s historic tradition of firearms regulation,” the court said.
Still, LaLonde held firm. Experts told the committee that they believe the bill ultimately would be seen as constitutional, a view shared by Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark, who would be tasked with defending it.
Those with the opposite point of view expressed doubt, pointing out that the state’s other top legal office, the Vermont Office of the Defender General, gave testimony to the judiciary committee that the bill was unconstitutional on its face.
Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, quoted directly from the Heller decision, which found explicitly that a storage requirement interfered with citizens being able to use a gun “for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.” He requested that the storage section of the bill, as particularly constitutionally problematic, be voted on separately.
That section would require Vermonters with guns to store them locked and separate from ammunition in situations in which a child or an adult prohibited from having a gun would otherwise be able to access them.
LaLonde responded that the bill does not interfere with self-defense because it includes an exception that allows a loaded and unlocked firearm if it is carried by or within close proximity to an authorized user.
The first vote on the storage section won approval 98-47. The vote on the sections involving the waiting period and expanding the ability to petition for extreme risk protection was 99-43. The bill as a whole was moved forward on a voice vote.
Many speakers both for and against spoke about the devastating nature of suicide and their interest in taking measures to reduce deaths by suicide in Vermont.
“We have a gun problem in Vermont, and it’s suicide,” said Rep. Alyssa Black, D-Essex Town, a primary sponsor of the bill, when introducing it. She dedicated her vote to her son, Andrew Black, who died by suicide in 2018, hours after purchasing a gun.
In 2021, 142 Vermonters died by suicide, 60% of them using a gun. For the past decade, Vermont Department of Health figures show, almost 90% of gun deaths have been suicides. The state’s suicide rate of 20.3 per 100,000 people is much higher than the national average of 14 per 100,000.
Data from national studies show that the measures in the bill are effective in reducing deaths by making guns less immediately accessible, its legislative advocates said. Other ways people attempt suicide are much less likely to end in death.
“It’s a natural inclination to think of the ‘why’ when this happens,” Black said. “The most predictive factor in outcome doesn’t have anything to do with the ‘why.’ It's the ‘how.’ It’s the method that they use.”
However, opponents said, a closer look at at least one of those national studies suggests that the measures in the bill would be less effective in Vermont. Strategies that might work in states with lower gun ownership, like a three-day waiting period, are not going to reduce suicides here, where almost half of all households contain guns.
Suicides by gun are by and large committed with guns already in the house by the people who own them, said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who described herself as a survivor of suicide.
“I think instead of voting so that we feel as though we are doing something, we should put our energy into things that will actually address the tragedy that we are dealing with every day in Vermont,” Donahue said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Donahue's name.
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