We often hear that Vermont is among the safest states in the nation and that the number of gun deaths here is low. If that's so, then why is it important that Vermont prohibit certain people from possessing firearms? While the absolute number of gun deaths may be small, if we look at gun deaths per 100,000 persons, Vermont's gun death rate is higher than New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California as well as other states. Further, Vermont is the only state that has not given local and state law enforcement the ability to prosecute someone for possessing a firearm who has been convicted of a violent crime. All 49 other states and the federal government currently find this conduct to be criminal. Vermont does not. And beyond that, it is entirely too easy for someone who is mentally ill to purchase a gun to turn it on himself or others.
S.141 both respects the second amendment and protects public safety. Vermont has a strong culture of gun responsibility, but giving easy access to violent felons should never be part of that. Federal law already prohibits dangerous people from possessing weapons, but right now aspects of this law can’t be enforced at the state level. We want our state to be a place where a violent felon knows that if he or she has a gun prosecution will follow. We want the family members of those who have recently been adjudicated as a danger to themselves to know that if their loved one tries to buy a gun at a gun shop a background check will stop them. The bill is clear that people can recover from mental illness, and that if someone who has been previously adjudicated gets better, there is a process in place so that their rights can be restored. S.141 does all of this, while carefully protecting the right to bear arms.
The bill establishes a Vermont criminal offense for possession of a firearm by a person who has been convicted of a violent crime. Such crimes include domestic abuse, sexual exploitation of children, or selling, dispensing, or trafficking significant amounts of illegal drugs. A violent crime also generally includes an offense in another jurisdiction (another state) comparable to one in Vermont if the penalty would prohibit a person from possessing a firearm under federal law. A “Firearm” is defined the same way as in the federal law, which excludes antique firearms and muzzle loaders.
Other sections relate to possession of firearms or those who have been determined to be mentally ill. One relates to a defendant who is found not responsible for a crime by reason of insanity or is incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness and is also committed to the Department of Mental Health after a determination that the person is a danger to himself or herself or others. Another section relates to civil commitment proceedings where the Family Division of the Superior Court determines that that person is a danger to himself or herself or others. In each of these cases, confidential reports are generated that go to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. These reports only include information sufficient to identify the person, the reason for the report, and a statement that it is made in accordance with federal law. The person who is the subject of the report is also provided with a copy, which must inform the person that he or she is thereafter prohibited from possessing a firearm. Vermont will join the 38 states that currently do some version of this type of reporting.
Further, the bill establishes a process through which a person who has been prohibited from possessing a firearm for mental health reasons can petition the Court to have his or her name taken off the NICS database if he or she is no longer a danger to himself or herself or others. The Court considers the circumstances regarding the petitioner’s case, including his or her mental health and criminal record, character evidence, and statements from known victims. The standard the Court will apply is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
A further section requires the Departments of Public Safety and of Mental Health to report on progress in establishing a Vermont version of the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project, an initiative in New Hampshire to reduce the number of firearms-related suicide deaths by helping gun shop owners avoid providing firearms to suicidal persons.
Finally, some of you have have followed the debate either on line or in person in the House Chamber. Those who did surely recognized that debate was emotionally charged and, at times deeply personal. Advocates against the bill stressed that Vermont does not have a gun problem and that the bill is legislation in search of a problem. On the other side, one member who is a Vietnam combat veteran described his personal struggle with PTSD and that he had contemplated suicide before recovering his mental health. Another member described his brother's psychosis that eventually drew him to take his own life. Many of us are aware of deaths by firearm that have been the result of ongoing domestic abuse. When the role was called, I voted AYE without hesitation.