By Bruce Parker | Watchdog.org
An influential Democratic state senator says he’s unlikely to support a bill requiring background checks on gun purchases because the checks are unnecessary and unconstitutional in Vermont.
“I need to be convinced that Vermont needs a background check. I doubt it’s necessary,” state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told Vermont Watchdog.
The statement echoes comments made by Gov. Peter Shumlin during the weekend.
“My view on gun laws is that Vermont has the guns laws right now that serve us well. I want to keep the ones we got in place, I don’t think we need new laws,” Shumlin told ABC Local 22 at the Yankee Sportsman’s Classic in Essex Junction.
While Vermont has among the highest gun ownership per capita, recent FBI crime statistics show the state is the safest in the nation. In 2013, the Green Mountain State had 115 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, well below the national average of 368 violent crimes for every 100,000 people.
Sears, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said background checks don’t pass the common sense test.
“If I want to give a neighbor my gun, and I’m not hunting anymore, I shouldn’t have to go to a gun shop in order to do a background check on my neighbor, who I’ve known for 30 years. And if I give my gun to some felon, that’s my own fault, and I can already be held accountable for that under various laws in civil court,” he said.
Gun Sense Vermont, a well-financed anti-gun group advocating the background checks, argues legislation is necessary to “close a loophole” that allows the mentally ill, domestic abusers and felons to buy guns through private sales, over the Internet and at gun shows.
Although Gun Sense claims to be a grassroots organization, the group’s legislative effort is being promoted nationwide by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety.
Bloomberg announced last April he would spend $50 million to back gun control efforts in states. Leaders of Gun Sense refuse to say whether the organization receives money from the former New York City mayor.
State background checks might not be constitutional in Vermont, Sears said.
“A lot of people don’t realize there’s a section in the Vermont Constitution regarding the ownership of firearms that, as I read it, is much more liberal towards the gun owner than the U.S. Constitution,” Sears said.
“People say, ‘It’s a violation of the Second Amendment.’ I think the 16th Article of the Vermont Constitution also needs to be read in any of these decisions we make.”
The article to which Sears refers is unambiguous: “The people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State.”
That single clause, which has existed since Vermont was an independent republic in 1777, has produced some of the most most permissive gun laws in the nation. Vermonters are free to carry open or concealed anywhere in the state without a permit. Only the statehouse and schools are exempted. The state Supreme Court upheld the law in 1903.
Such constitutional protections, combined with Vermont’s best-in-the-nation gun safety record, make gun control a hard sell.
At a rally last week at the capital, Gun Sense President Ann Braden said guns were “being used in domestic relationships to threaten women and children.” Braden claimed the mere presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation “increases the likelihood of homicide by 500 percent.”
However, according to the most recent FBI data, violent crime has fallen dramatically in Vermont. The violent crime rate fell 19.2 percent in 2013 — the largest improvement in the nation. Moreover, data from 2010 show that while 42 percent of Vermont households reported having guns, the state’s gun murder rate per 100,000 people was 0.3 percent — the lowest in the nation.
Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, said crime statistics refute Gun Sense’s arguments for gun control.
“People are really pissed off about this bill because it’s getting shoved down their throats. We’ve never had a problem here, and we’ve always behaved ourselves,” Cutler told Vermont Watchdog.
“We have the highest firearms safety record in the nation. We just came in No. 1 in the FBI crime report, and people don’t like it when somebody comes in here and says you have to do this because something might happen. We’ll, it’s not happening and it hasn’t happened,” he said.
Cutler claims Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike are telling his members they don’t support criminal background checks. He said Sears is a case in point.
“With Sears being the chair of the Judiciary Committee, he knows and understands the situation up here in Vermont. He knows there’s no problem in Vermont, as far as violent crime rate or anything like that,” Cutler said.
“We’re hearing everything from ‘Vermont’s laws are good enough the way they are now’ to ‘I don’t even want this bill.’ The only people that I can see are for this bill right now are the three sponsors.”
Those sponsors are Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor; Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden; and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Claire Ayer, D-Addison. In 2013, Baruth introduced a ban on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, but withdrew the bill a week later.
On Jan. 27, gun owners across the state are planning what they say will be the largest rally in the history of the Vermont Statehouse. A partial list of groups attending the event include the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, the Vermont Traditions Coalition, Gun Owners of Vermont, Vermont Second Amendment Coalition and the Vermont Citizens Defense League.
“It will probably be the biggest rally in the history of Vermont. We’re looking at probably a thousand people and maybe more. We’re showing up to demonstrate a show of strength,” Culter said.
If Vermonters arrive in such numbers, it could be enough to convince undecided lawmakers to side with Sears and Shumlin.
While Sears stressed that violent criminals and people with adjudicated mental health problems shouldn’t have guns, he said he doubted the Legislature needed to act.
“I would need to be convinced that Vermont has a problem that the law is going to fix. … Virginia didn’t change their law until the Virginia Tech shooting. It might have prevented that. I don’t know that a background check is going to prevent anything.”