Last week I witnessed the most emotional and heated debate on the House floor since I took my seat four years ago. S.141 is a bill relating to the criminal possession of firearms and the restriction from possession on those adjudicated by a court to be a temporary danger to themselves or others. The bill began as S.31 and originally included a “universal background check” provision that was later discarded.
S.141 would make it a state crime for someone convicted of a range of offenses defined by existing federal law to possess a gun. This law is already enforced (some would say loosely) by a small number of federal agents in Vermont. However, state law enforcement officials have asked for more tools to help address increasing rates of drug and drug-related crimes without having to rely on the feds.
The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a state affiliate of the NRA, provided feedback to the Judiciary Committee and helped to improve the bill. Earlier in the session they successfully lobbied the Senate to remove universal background checks from S.31. I find it encouraging that 2nd Amendment advocates and the lawmakers who would be expanding regulation of firearms would work together in such a productive and civil manner. This is something Vermont can be proud of. VFSC worked hard to reach a compromise and ultimately decided not to oppose the bill, although they wouldn’t support it either. Both sides of the divisive issue claimed victory when the bill passed.
During the floor debate, strong opposition was partially couched in the language of “slippery slopes” and “camel noses under the tent”. In my experience the only slopes in government are uphill with lots of friction, and I cannot imagine any possibility in a future Vermont where gun registries or confiscation are imposed on law-abiding citizens by state government. Just imagine how that would backfire. And about that camel, you could say it’s already in the tent since most of the provisions in S.141 are already enforceable under federal law.
Some members protested the “stigmatization” of the mentally ill and the possibility that people in need of mental health treatment (including veterans with PTSD) would not seek help for fear of losing their gun rights. But the bill is very explicit about how someone’s name would be added to the federal NICS background check system. Only through the due process of a civil or criminal proceeding whereby a court adjudicates someone to be a danger to themselves or others is a name submitted to the national database. There is also a process by which someone can have their rights reinstated by petitioning the court for relief from disability upon recovery. Seeking treatment or being actively engaged in treatment for mental health conditions does not set someone on a path to having their 2nd Amendment rights revoked. We who should know better do a potentially harmful disservice by perpetuating this myth and not correcting misunderstandings. I hope the representatives who opposed the bill will at least be able to set the minds of any of their constituents going through mental health challenges at ease, and encourage them to seek help without fear of losing any of their rights.
Rep. Sam Young of Glover spoke of his brother’s suicide after suffering with paranoid schizophrenia for years. Involuntarily committed by his family, Sam’s brother would have been on the “no buy” list had this law been in place. His family had asked the local gun shop not to sell their son a gun, but he only had to go to the neighboring town to buy one. He was found in the woods more than a year later. Sam explained his support for S.141 by saying, “Sometimes we do things for political reasons. Sometimes we do them for personal.” Some say that Sam’s brother would have found another way to kill himself if he hadn’t been able to buy a gun that day. But in light of evidence to indicate that when a suicide is prevented a repeat attempt doesn’t always follow, who are we to tell Sam or anyone else who has lost a loved one in similar circumstances that their family member “would have just found another way”?
Rep. Chip Troiano, a Vietnam veteran and criminal investigator, spoke of his own struggles with combat-related PTSD and decades of working for the legal rights of the mentally ill. He forcefully corrected multiple suggestions that the bill was an attack on the mentally ill and that it would prevent people from seeking treatment. Those claims by the opposition were not repeated after he sat down.
Some opponents of S.141 painted supporters as shills for “Bloomberg money”. I personally received from Gun Sense Vermont an unsolicited check for $100 before last year’s election and my name appears in the Gun Sense donor database on the Secretary of State’s website. It was one of three unsolicited donations I received from different groups, and because I don’t accept donations from lobbying groups I voided the checks. I don’t know if any of Bloomberg’s money went to Gun Sense or not, but outside money is used on both sides of most lobbying efforts on any given issue in Montpelier all the time and everyone knows it.
Persistent violations of our Fourth Amendment rights (by warrantless wiretapping, data capture and online surveillance by government and corporations) are seldom, if ever, met with as much public protest as perceived challenges to 2nd Amendment rights, and our 4th Amendment rights have been actively violated for quite some time. But the abstract discomfort we feel about our telephone calls or emails being monitored is less visceral than the concern about losing a piece of private property that does provide a measure of safety. I also understand a citizen’s concern when they look around the world and see unarmed populations being routinely exploited, threatened and abused by corrupt militarized dictatorships – our allies and trading partners among them. In a world full of bad actors with nearly a billion guns in circulation, a law-abiding American citizen must always reserve the right to bear arms. But we should be just as vigilant and vocal about other violations of our rights that may be less noticeable.
So why did I vote for S.141 if it wasn’t a quid pro quo for the lobby money I didn’t ask for and didn’t use? As a gun owner and recreational shooter wary of human government and human nature, and one who represents a considerable number of hunters, veterans, sportsmen and collectors (family and friends included), I searched the bill for any word, line or phrase that did anything to threaten or negate my 2nd Amendment rights or those of my constituents. I came to the conclusion that S.141 struck the right balance between public safety and individual freedom.
The least controversial section of S.141, and the one where both sides readily found common ground, was the inclusion of a Vermont version of the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project. Started by a gun shop owner who discovered that three guns sold from his shop in the span of a week were used for suicides, he decided to become proactive. He reviewed his shop’s surveillance videos for any indications that the people who bought guns and later killed themselves were exhibiting signs of emotional distress. Collaborating with mental health advocates and professionals, Ralph Demicco of Hookset, NH helped develop a series of printed materials to educate and inform other gun shop owners about the warning signs to be aware of in people who may be suicidal. Materials also include prominently displayed signs with phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines. Since the project’s inception in 2009 more than 50% of gun shops in New Hampshire have voluntarily chosen to participate. I spoke with Ralph Demicco a couple months ago and he told me the story of a woman who came into his shop to buy a handgun. He had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right and simply asked her, “Are you sure you want to buy a gun today?”. She broke down in tears and confessed that she was in fact severely depressed, had ceased treatment, and was considering suicide. He happened to know her therapist and reconnected the two of them that day. She did not make a subsequent attempt to take her own life.
The Vermont Gun Shop Project is something that started to evolve outside of the legislative process earlier in the session when members of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs began communicating with the Vermont Suicide Prevention Coalition about starting a program similar to New Hampshire’s. The provision in S.141 would simply have the Department of Mental Health report back to the legislature on the progress that’s been made by these groups by January 31, 2016. This is one endeavor of which it can truly be said that if it saves just one life then it’s worth doing.