Updated at 6:35 p.m.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday allowed H.230, a three-pronged gun control bill, to become law without his signature despite concerns over the constitutionality of one of the bill’s provisions.
Promised by its stalwarts as a way to curb suicides by firearms — the most common form of suicide in Vermont — H.230 will implement safe storage rules, broaden existing red flag laws and institute 72-hour waiting periods for gun purchases.
It was the last provision that most concerned Scott and gun advocates. While he stayed mum on how he would act on H.230, Scott for weeks told reporters he doubted that such a waiting period is constitutional.
The constitutionality of gun control measures — both past and present — is even more uncertain after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. The precedent-setting case established a new legal test requiring that, “to justify a firearm regulation, the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
Scott hearkened to “the relatively new legal landscape we find ourselves in,” saying in a statement Thursday afternoon, “My struggle with the overall bill lies in the fact that I, and all legislators, took an oath to ‘not do any act or thing injurious to the Constitution.’
“However, this matter is currently being taken up through constitutional legal tests across the country and will be decided in Federal Court. I would also not be surprised to see a Vermont entity challenge the constitutionality of this provision of the bill, as well,” Scott continued. “With this in mind, knowing that my constitutional concerns will be addressed through the legal process, I will allow H.230 to become law without my signature, and await the judicial branch to decide the fate of waiting periods.”
Quick to take aim at Scott for his decision Thursday afternoon was Vermont’s Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, which has in years past unsuccessfully sued the state over gun control legislation. In a written statement provided to VTDigger Thursday afternoon, the group’s president Chris Bradley said the federation “is deeply disappointed in the outcome of H.230, a law that has at least one completely unconstitutional provision.”
“The Courts will indeed decide this issue, and in the meantime things like an Oath of Office appear to be nothing more than a trivial inconvenience, as it certainly is not adhered to as a rule here in Vermont,” Bradley wrote.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, was one of H.230’s strongest advocates in the Statehouse this year, having made firearms legislation a priority in his first term as the Senate’s top leader. Reached by phone Thursday, Baruth told VTDigger he had been bracing for a veto and was “extremely pleasantly surprised” by the governor’s decision.
“The waiting period, I feel like that was a red line for him at one point, but people’s attitudes — with all of the massacres that we’ve experienced — people’s attitudes have radically shifted, and I think he realized he would look like an extreme outlier if you were to veto (H.230),” Baruth said.
Though he has said numerous times that he doesn’t believe Vermont needs to institute new gun control provisions since he signed a substantial firearms package into law in 2018, Scott did not take issue with the safe storage and red flag law provisions in H.230.
In fact, on Thursday afternoon, he praised them. Of the safe storage measures, he said they create “a more palatable and effective approach to ensure guns are not readily accessible to those who shouldn’t have them.”
And on the expanded red flag rules, Scott said, “I believe the expansion of who can petition the court for an extreme risk protection order will prove to be helpful in keeping guns out of the hands of those who are at risk of doing harm to themselves or others.”
Baruth, a longtime advocate for gun control, called the moment surreal: H.230 became law this year with relatively little conflict, when any of its three components, he suggested, “would have killed a bill even five years ago.”
“When I look back on the session, there was no tense confrontation. There was no army of people in orange marching into the Statehouse,” Baruth said. “Going back a half dozen years ago, the idea was to intimidate legislators, so they would come in their hunting clothes, and there was an implicit message there: ‘We’re dressed to go hunting and we’ve come to your house, because it’s our house, and we’re going to take it back.’”
“But I think now, people have… gone through a transformation where we realize we don’t want to live in a country where access to guns is so ubiquitous, and massacres are so common,” Baruth said.