Hundreds rally for firearm safety in Middlebury; petition seeks changes in laws

MIDDLEBURY — People rallying for tighter gun laws took their cause from the streets of downtown Middlebury on Saturday to a local gathering of lawmakers on Monday, as they maintained their full-court press on state officials to pass firearm safety legislation during the waning weeks of this session.
Saturday’s rally in Middlebury drew around 550 people, according to one of the attendees, Fran Putnam of Weybridge. In addition to providing a forum for folks to share their views on gun violence, the event saw more than 350 people sign a related petition urging lawmakers to tighten rules for purchasing firearms.
The petition asks for five specific reforms:
•  Digitizing gun records.
•  Closing the loophole in the background check law that “allows people who shouldn’t be allowed to purchase firearms to slip through the cracks and buy guns online or at gun shows.”
•  Reinstating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on gun violence.
•  Passing a law banning assault weapons.
•  Outlawing the sale of high-capacity magazines.
Putnam was pleased with the support both at the rally and the petition garnered on Saturday.
“I want you to now that Addison County is behind gun safety,” Putnam reported at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Middlebury American Legion headquarters.
Five young participants at the Saturday rally were among the breakfast attendees. Sharing the microphone were Addison Central School District students Greta Hardy-Mittell, Andi Boe, Cathy Dyer, Zora Duquette-Hoffman and Anya Hardy-Mittell.
“We wanted to remind the legislators that gun legislation has our full support as students, and to urge them to pass it through as quickly as possible,” Greta Hardy-Mittell said.
Duquette-Hoffman, a Middlebury Union Middle School student, gave a shorter version of the gun control testimony she delivered before the House Judiciary Committee on March 1. She was among a student group that met with Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials that same day.
In her testimony, Duquette-Hoffman said “when I say goodbye to my mother as she drops me off at school, I make sure to tell her that I love her, just in case this is the last time I said goodbye, just in case something happens, just in case I don’t come home, just in case I become another name on a list that’s growing too long. Just in case my friends become part of that list.”
The students drew praise at the Legislative Breakfast on Monday for their activism.
“I commend the group … for standing up for something you feel is so important,” Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said. “One of the great things about the United States and Vermont is you can and will be heard  if you’re persistent enough.”
Merkel shared his own views on gun violence. And he believes insufficient services for mental health patients — rather than the guns themselves — are at the root of the problem.
“People that have mental health issues that pose significant threats to themselves or others should not have access to firearms,” Merkel said. “There’s a hole between gun registration and mental health issues. That has got to be closed.
“You’ve got to look at the people using the weapon,” he added.
Merkel noted that 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, who stands accused of threatening to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School last month, had a well-documented history of mental health struggles.
“Let’s face it; anyone who considers going into a school and using a firearm against innocent children — or anyone, for that matter — has a mental health issue,” Merkel added. “And I want to know what our legislators are doing about that.”
Law enforcement, he said, is being asked to take a greater role in assisting people experiencing mental health crises. Those services are best provided by mental health agencies, according to Merkel.
“It puts (police) in a bad position and puts the person experiencing that condition in a bad position,” Merkel said.
“The system is broken.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, countered that gun violence and mental illness do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
“People who have mental health issues are not all violent,” Lanpher said. “And people who are violent are not all having mental health issues. We have to be careful not to conflate those two things all the time.”
Merkel wants to add a School Resource Officer position to his department to network with Vergennes-area students and potentially pre-empt school violence before it occurs.
“Kids just want to feel recognized,” Merkel said. “Time spent with kids equates to good things.”
Lanpher, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, acknowledged what has been a longstanding lack of bed space in state mental health facilities and long waiting lists for patients seeking counseling.
But she believes there’s some room for optimism.
Vermont recently received $28 million through a tobacco-related lawsuit, and plans call for $14 million of that money to be distributed statewide for mental health and substance abuse services.
“How can we shore up the system, and not just for one year but maybe for four years and get something started,” Lanpher said.
Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, is a member of the House Committee on Corrections & Institutions. She noted several mental health-related initiatives that have received tentative funding, including an increase in community outreach counselors who help people access emergency services, and more housing and support services for mental health patients in the Rutland County area. Also, plans call for the fiscal year 2019 capital budget to include funds for three new beds for women and 10 new beds for men within the state’s prison system for patients to receive on-site mental health programming.
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, agreed that limited state resources have created barriers for those with mental illness. Other agencies are consequently feeling the pressure, he said.
“We have a governor who has said, ‘No new taxes, no new fees,’ who has told school districts that even though their budget levels came in at around half of what he asked for, he has said, ‘That’s not enough,’” Conlon said. “There are two services that really have no choice but to deal with the mental health crisis that we have in Vermont: The police, which have to respond to every call, and the education system, which has  to serve every student who’s dropped off each morning.”
Middlebury resident Margaret Klohck said she hopes law abiding hunters don’t get the impression they are being targeted by the push for stronger gun rules. She said the AR-15 assault rifle — used in last month’s school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and in past mass shootings — is what she’d like to see restricted, and not conventional hunting weapons.
“Military weapons are not meant to be in citizens’ hands,” she said. “Hunters shouldn’t get a bad rap for this.”
Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows said educators are taking steps to make schools safer.
Burrows said he’s compared notes with other superintendents on school safety precautions.
“Everybody is looking at their buildings; there’s obviously the physical perimeter,” Burrows said. “Schools get safety audits from state agencies frequently. We are in continual improvement with our buildings.”
School leaders are rethinking the way students and teachers should gird for an armed assault.
“One of the shifts in school safety over the last 10 years or so has been the shift from lockdowns — where staff and students would lockdown in a specific classroom — to a ‘run, hide, fight’ model of training, where students are really trained to respond differently in a severe situation like we had at Parkland,” Burrows said.
Ultimately, education officials can’t guarantee schools will be impregnable to would-be shooters no matter how many safety precautions are taken, according to Burrows.
“What we can do, on a number of fronts … is be really vocal and allow students to be a voice in making change,” Burrows said. “These school shootings have been happening more and more frequently, to the point where we are becoming desensitized. Students leading the way, I think is very critical.”
Lanpher stressed that those who would do harm are not limiting their focus to the inside of a school building. She spoke of two separate instances of students refusing to leave their respective school buildings during fire drills last week because they were afraid to go outside.
“Guns don’t necessarily have to come (indoors) to kill you,” Lanpher said. “We have to remember the violence issue is much bigger than an entry point into the building.”
House OKs one gun control bill; more measures still before the legislature
Citizens have been gathering in the streets to demand more gun safety laws, and a series of related bills taht would do just that are working their way through the Legislature.
The most prominent of those, bill S.55, was approved by the Vermont House on Tuesday on a vote of 89 to 54.
Already passed by the Senate, the bill will go to a Senate/House conference committee before landing on Gov. Scott’ desk to be signed into law. Scott has voiced support for the proposal.
S.55 features a number of gun safety measures, including:
•  Expanding background check requirements to unlicensed (or private) firearm sales, including a provision that provides immunity to Federal Firearm Licensees that provide background check services in unlicensed (private) sales;
•  Raising the minimum age for buying a firearm to 21, unless the buyer has taken a hunter safety course (which is already required to obtain a hunting license), is a veteran, or is a law enforcement official or in the military. This puts long guns on par with handguns, which, under federal law, one must be at least 21 to purchase.
•  Banning the purchase and possession of bump stocks effective October 1, 2018; and
•  Banning the purchase of high-capacity magazines (more than 10 rounds) while excluding antiques, replicas and long guns with lever or bolt action. Possession of high-capacity magazines that were purchased before the enactment date is grandfathered.
The local delegation to the Vermont House was split. Voting in favor of S.55 were: Reps. Fred Baser of Bristol, Stephen Carr of Brandon, Peter Conlon of Cornwall, Diane Lanpher of Vergennes, Robin Scheu and Amy Sheldon of Middlebury, and David Sharpe of Bristol. All but Baser are Democrats; Baser is Republican.
Opposed to S.55 were Republican Reps. Warren Van Wyck of Ferrisburgh and Harvey Smith of New Haven, plus Independent Terry Norris of Shoreham.
Explaining his vote, Norris in the official House Journal said that he agreed with his constituents in the Fair Haven Union High School district who told him that “this bill would do nothing to make our schools safer.
“I believe we pushed this bill through to make it look like we were doing something but in reality it will prevent nothing. We need to look further into why these young adults feel so angry with their fellow students and work to make schools safer.”
Rep. Scheu, a member of the House Committee on Corrections & Institutions, delivered an update on the progress of a series of Vermont gun safety proposals during Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Middlebury American Legion Hall.
Besides anticipating Tuesday’s House vote on S.55, she mentioned a couple of other gun safety related bills that aren’t proceeding as quickly.
They include H.422, which proposes to require law enforcement officer to confiscate a “dangerous or deadly weapon” from a person who is arrested or cited for domestic assault if the weapon is (a) in the immediate possession or control of the person being arrested or cited; (b) in plain view of the officer; or (c) discovered during a consensual search.
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved H.422 with an amendment and passed it on to the full Senate for consideration.
Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee has gained jurisdiction of S.221, a Senate-based bill that proposes to allow a law enforcement officer to obtain an “extreme risk protection order” that would prohibit a person from owning a firearm for up to a year if the Family Division of the Superior Court finds by “clear and convincing evidence” that the person poses a significant danger to himself or herself or to another person by buying, owning or receiving a firearm.
Bill S.221 is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, according to Scheu.
Also, at the urging of Gov. Scott, lawmakers have earmarked $4 million in state funding to make school facilities safer from outside attacks.
Scheu suggested residents contact their legislators and the governor’s office to register their views on the varied gun safety bills. State officials are poised to form a “Governor’s Commission on Gun Violence Prevention,” according to Scheu, a panel that will look at a wide range of potential safety measures.
Some participants at Monday’s breakfast urged the Legislature to consider some additional gun control steps this session — such as a ban on the sale and manufacture of assault weapons, instituting a 10-day waiting period prior to the purchase of a firearm, and requiring guns to be locked in storage when not being used.
Lawmakers want more time to study those additional proposals before voting on them, Scheu said.
“It takes a while to get it right, and it’s important to get it right,” Scheu said.
She noted states have had mixed results with assault rifle legislation.
“Connecticut’s (law) was so specific that each year, the gun manufacturers could make a little change and it wouldn’t qualify (under the ban),” Scheu said.

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