Gun rights advocates have few qualms with most of a new, wide-ranging bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But they’re raising concerns about the constitutionality and effectiveness of several of the bill’s other measures.
The bill, S.4, includes a litany of restrictions on those accused of drug and human trafficking — or who enable them — and on fugitives of justice and people subject to stalking and domestic abuse stay-away orders. Among other things the bill includes limitations on accused offenders owning guns and an expansion of records used for background checks.
What the Second Amendment-focused groups have a problem with: the bill would make straw purchases — when a person buys a gun for someone who can’t, already a federal offense — illegal in Vermont. And it would criminalize defacing a gun’s serial number and bar people under 21 from possessing semi-automatic firearms.
With the year’s legislative session entering its third week, the Senate Judiciary Committee remains in a contentious debate about the bill, the first hearings on which took place two weeks ago.
The committee held more rounds of testimony this week featuring a number of gun rights advocates and leaders in the fields of combating domestic violence and human trafficking.
The gun rights advocates that testified last Wednesday outlined their issues with the sections of the nine-part bill that propose restrictions on gun ownership and purchasing.
Gun rights advocates raised concerns over the constitutionality of the bill following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June in the case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which expanded the right of law-abiding gun owners to possess guns outside the home. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas affirmed that the Second Amendment is not “a second-class right.” Gun rights groups in Vermont say measures like those in S.4 would likely be challenged in courts because of the federal ruling.
In response to a list of court precedents on gun ownership presented in Wednesday’s hearings, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, one of the three sponsors of the bill, expressed concerns about the recurrent trend of mass shootings in America and what he sees as the Supreme Court’s complacency on gun-related cases.
“Times are changing,” Sears said. “Every day there’s another mass shooting, and it’s really alarming to have, in my opinion, the United States Supreme Court going backwards.”
To some who have followed Vermont politics, Sears might seem an unlikely senator to spearhead a bill restricting gun ownership. “I’m someone who always had an A+ from the NRA until this election cycle and I dropped to a C,” he said at the hearing last week. According to Vote Smart, which puts candidate rankings on a 0 to 100 scale, Sears’ approval rating from the National Rifle Association went from 100% in 2016 to 42% in 2022.
Other witnesses Wednesday included Eric Davis, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, a proudly uncompromising Second Amendment–supporting group, who criticized the bill’s description of the types of guns that would be banned for all residents under the age of 21, as well as the ban itself.
“From a practical standpoint, this type of blanket ban will have very little, if not zero, effect on the ability of violent and/or youthful offenders to obtain such a weapon for nefarious purposes,” Davis said.
Davis added: “It’s also obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the mechanical workings of firearms that this description (in section 8 of the bill) was written by someone who does not share that same basic understanding of the mechanics of firearms.”
Witnesses in the committee that day raised additional concerns about the straw purchasing and serial number measures in S.4. One of them, Chris Bradley, the president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said in an interview afterward that “not only will [the straw purchasing provisions] become redundant, it’s putting additional tasks on our courts or law enforcement in our prisons.”
“If, in fact, our courts are actually prosecuting these things,” he continued.
Bradley in his testimony and in the interview emphasized that straw purchasing, and the conjunct crime of lying on a federal document, are already prosecuted federal crimes.
In an interview, Sears responded to Bradley’s critique by saying S.4 “just allows Vermont to prosecute if the feds don’t want to. There’s been tremendous cooperation between the feds and the police departments.”
And according to Sears, the drafters of the bill were responding to the concerns raised by local law enforcement in Vermont.
“It’s really a bill that developed in discussions with the chief of police in Bennington, the town manager, the state’s attorney and others in the community,” said Sears, whose district includes the town.
When asked if the bill had been met with serious opposition since its initial reading two weeks ago, Sears chuckled and looked in the direction of the gun rights advocates who had testified that morning. “There’s a few things where there’s no pushback, but most of it got pushback from some quarters,” he said.
He said the bill will be revised. “How much further,” he said, “I don’t know.”