Gun Fight in Vermont

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(A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of the Hardwick Gazette)

New Gun Law Legislation Draws Local Opinions

by Michael Bielawski

HARDWICK VT– Are background checks for gun purchases an effective way to deter crime? Do these checks equal registration which could then lead to confiscation?

Those are some questions put forth by a few hundred demonstrators at Montpelier VT on Tuesday Jan. 27, regarding the new bill S.31 for background checks for most gun purchases. It is sponsored by Senators Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison. There was also hearing on Tuesday Feb. 10.

The main idea is that all private sales of firearms be subject to the same background checks via federal form 4473 as conventional store purchases. There are some exceptions such as sales among immediate family members. Hardwick’s Larry Hamel doesn’t think it can be enforced.

“Criminals are still going to be criminals and with all the exemptions such as for family members… It’s another law with no teeth,” said Hamel.

The scenario Hamel is concerned with is like if an officer pulls someone over and sees a gun without any paperwork, what’s to say the person can’t just claim it was purchased from his or her family? What incentive is there for a person with criminal intent to want to notify authorities that he or she is purchasing a gun?

Hardwick police chief Aaron Cochran was at a Barre gun show over the past weekend. He also doesn’t think it’s a great idea.

“I’ll just say that I don’t support S. 32. I would follow with the governor in feeling that new gun legislation is not necessary in the safest state in the nation,” he said.

What Cochran is referencing is that Vermont is distinguished as having the lowest crime rate in the US while also having the highest gun ownership rate.

Claire Ayer took some time to defend the bill, but first she got one thing straight.

“First of all I’m a gun owner, and I’d be a hunter if I had time,” she said. “So it’s not anti-gun.”

She broke down the bill’s details…

“There are three parts to the bill. Two parts help us comply with the federal registry for certain kinds of dangerous felons, and certain kinds of people with a dangerous mental illness that has been judged by a court. And the third part is the background check. When Vermont judges certain people to be dangerous we’re supposed to send those names to the feds but we don’t, because of a court decision that said we didn’t have to.”

So if the law were to pass, then if a resident wants to buy a gun from say their neighbor, they should go together to the gun store to fill out form 4473. Hamel doesn’t think it will work.

“Most of the gun dealers that I’ve talked to won’t do it,” said Hamel. “What’s to say that gun is not stolen? Are they also going to do a background check on the guy selling it too? That’s going to make them liable for the background check. They have to keep the paperwork on it.”

Ed Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont thinks background checks equal registration.

“What they are calling it is a universal background check, but this is registration, because that is the only way to enforce,” he said. “The 4473 form lists the make, model, caliber and serial number. What’s happened in the past is the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has visited hundreds of dealers nationwide and made copies of all those forms, so this is basically registration.”

Another concern is what constitutes a mental disorder which prohibits buying a gun? The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes such broad conditions as Oppositional Defiance Disorder, defined as “defiance or vindictiveness toward you and other authority figures.”

Ayer responded to that saying that two doctors and then a court judge must deem someone dangerous enough to not be able to buy a gun. She said only about 50 or 60 people in all of Vermont annually ever fit the criteria.

“You don’t want to cast a net too wide,” she said. “It’s very, very few people who fall into that category. And we want to make sure there is a way for people to get off of the registry because mental illness is not a life sentence.”

Ayer seemed to indicate she will listen to critics.

“We’ll listen to the evidence,” she said. “We don’t want a motion, and we don’t want drama. We want the facts, data and studies. Are those people with those types of illnesses more likely to commit violence with guns? Then we’ll decide, we’ll recommend to the Judiciary Committee to include that or not. And the second part of testimony we will likely take is from a public health point of view, do background checks have any effects on the rate of violence? Do we know that they pick out people who shouldn’t have guns?”


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