Legislators defend new gun safety laws; some believe rules go too far

WEYBRIDGE — Vermont’s new gun laws drew a lot of discussion among participants at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Weybridge Congregational Church, including from students of nearby Weybridge Elementary School, who came to see what their elected state representatives were up to.
One student asked lawmakers why they decided to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines sold in Vermont to 10 rounds.
The regulation of firearm magazines was one of several gun safety measures that lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott signed into law last week. Another measure allows confiscation of firearms from those deemed dangerous to themselves.
And Bill S.55 — which emerged as the most controversial of the initiatives — requires mandatory background checks for private gun sales, a ban on bump stocks, and a boost (from 18 to 21) in the legal age required to buy a gun — though there’s an exemption for younger people who take the hunter safety course as well as for professionals who need guns in their work.
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, said the House had a nine-hour debate over the magazine-size issue. Representatives learned through that debate that some shooting competitions require larger magazine sizes (30 rounds) and some older guns are specifically built with that larger carrying capacity in mind. Some guns won’t accept the smaller magazines.
Conlon said lawmakers took these factors into consideration and allowed some magazine exemptions for guns used in shooting competitions.
“I think what you saw (in the bill) was a compromise,” Conlon said.
Amy Mason is chairperson of the WomenSafe board. Based in Middlebury, WomenSafe provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She pointed to state statistics showing that three of the six domestic violence-related homicides in 2016 were committed with firearms. In 2015, firearms were used in all six of the domestic violence-related murders, she said.
Mason added 58 percent of the 137 domestic violence-related deaths between 1994 and 2016 were committed with guns. These figures don’t reflect additional instances in which abusers used firearms to threaten their victims, according to Mason.
“I want to say thank you, so much, to all of our representatives and the governor, our senators and community members for grappling with a really hard issue,” Mason said. “It makes me proud to live in a state where we can get through the tough stuff … I’m grateful things ended up the way they did, because the more guns there are, the tougher it is in terms of domestic violence.”
Not everyone was pleased with the new gun laws, however.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said he didn’t support S.55 in part because background checks are already widely used by gun dealers.
“Under federal law, if you knowingly or unknowingly sell a gun to a felon and that felon uses the gun in an additional felony, there’s a (penalty) of 10 years imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine,” Smith said. “The background checks (referenced in S.55) are totally unenforceable.”
Background checks, according to Smith, have failed to thwart several of those responsible for recent school shootings.
The new magazine regulations, Smith said, will be tough to enforce because they grandfather existing, non-complying magazines as well as those sold before the new rules take effect on Oct. 1.
“What we did was create animosity between one part of our society and another, when we should be sitting down talking about what’s going on in our society to create these kind of events in the first place,” Smith said. “We still need to have that conversation.”
Addison resident Mark Boivin said the state shouldn’t lose sight of what he believes is the reasoning behind the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms. He referenced Bennington Battle Day as an example where armed civilians defeated British troops, ultimately contributing to the nation’s independence.
“The armed citizenry came before the government, and the Second Amendment is a retention by the armed citizenry of their rights that pre-exist the government,” Boivin said. “The government has neither the right nor jurisdiction to take weapons away from the armed citizenry.”
Boivin argued the nation needs an armed citizenry because its professional military consists of many who serve brief enlistments.
“If you set up a system where the government doesn’t trust these people who established our country, then they don’t have any basis to trust the government,” Boivin said. “Trust goes both ways.”
Middlebury resident Lois Farnham countered the Second Amendment was specifically devised to ensure an armed militia during the fight for independence.
Farnham praised Gov. Scott for signing the firearms legislation, which she said reflects 21st-century needs.
“Things have changed in the last 200 years,” she said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said the new gun laws aren’t creating radical change.
“The laws don’t take guns away from people, they regulate the use of those guns,” Bray said. “Given the escalation of violence and how much more dangerous violence is when guns are involved, it’s reasonable for us to start to change the story and the culture.”
Chloe Lyons, a senior at Mount Abraham Union High School, also weighed in on the issue.
“I think at the end of the day, everybody wants the same thing — to maintain our freedom and have less casualties,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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