Vt politicians, police and gun owners weigh in on controls
Vermonters gave mixed reviews to President Barack Obama’s gun-control proposals.
Some law enforcement and political leaders praised the president’s call for tighter background checks and bans on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition clips. But others wondered why residents in the state with one of the lowest violent crime rates and among the most relaxed gun laws would support perceived incursions on gun owners’ liberties.
“In a nutshell, we’re turning law-abiding citizens into criminals,” said Henry Parro, owner of Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury. “Instead of punishing criminals we’re going to take rights away from responsible gun owners.”
Supporters of the gun-control measures see the issue in a different light.
Justin Lindholm, the former owner of Lindholm Sports in Rutland, said universal background checks would be a good idea.
“It will cost buyers a little more money at gun shows, but it doesn’t take anyone’s rights away to have universal background checks,” Lindholm said. “I never understood why the law didn’t require everyone to undergo background checks.”
Police in Rutland County had similar views — especially the ease with which they said people with mental illnesses could acquire firearms.
“Vermont has a long-standing history of people who respect guns and use them properly,” said Rutland Police Chief James Baker. “But one of my main concerns is the rapid ability of criminals or mentally ill people to get guns. I support anything that would keep guns out of their hands.”
Echoing the concerns of Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, Baker said the “common denominator” in mass shootings was mental illness.
But restricting the sale of firearms to the mentally ill has been problematic in the past due to privacy rights under laws such as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, according to Rutland County Sheriff Stephen Benard.
“It’s HIPAA, HIPAA and all that kind of privacy rights,” Benard said. “We’re always looking back and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, he had a problem.’”
The more stringent background checks proposed by Obama didn’t address the mental health concerns voiced by Baker and Benard — although the president did indicate that one of the 23 executive orders he signed Wednesday was designed to deal with educating mental health workers about their reporting options.
A bill that state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, hopes to pass this year, on the other hand, has the potential to get at the heart of law enforcement concerns.
Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wants to propose a law that would instruct the state’s commissioner of mental health to provide information about people deemed mentally incompetent by a court to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Gun dealers nationwide are required to use the system to perform background checks for firearms purchases.
“They didn’t require this kind of reporting in Virginia until after the Virginia Tech massacre,” Sears said. “I want to take care of that oversight now.”
The other bill Sears hopes to pass would mirror a federal law that makes firearms possession or purchases by convicted felons a criminal offense.
“Vermont has a problem right now with guns being stolen or bought illegally to sell for drugs,” he said. “I think a law that makes it a crime for a felon to own a firearm would help.”
Benard said he thinks the senator is on the right track.
“I’d be interested to see data that shows how many firearms used in criminal acts are bought at gun shows,” he said. “I’m thinking a lot of firearms used that way were legally purchased.”
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Vermont has reported in the past that guns sold privately in Vermont have turned up in the hands of criminals on inner-city streets.
But the resident agent in charge for the ATF in Vermont, James Mostyn, said Wednesday that federal agents had been instructed not to comment on gun control issues until the agency develops a formal policy statement.
While there was generally broad support for more stringent background checks, views on the proposed assault weapons ban and large ammunition clips were split.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said in a message Wednesday that he supported the ban.
“I see no reason why high capacity clips and assault weapons should be in the hands of private citizens,” he said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a release that he categorically supports the president’s plan.
“Common sense dictates that we will only make progress in curbing senseless violence in our country with a 50-state solution. I support the president’s recommendations, and urge Congress to work collaboratively to adopt comprehensive federal legislation,” Shumlin wrote.
But others, including Benard, said the guns weren’t to blame.
“It’s not the AR-15 with a 30-round magazine that kills people. It’s the person pulling the trigger,” the sheriff said.
From a practical standpoint, Lindholm said the ban wouldn’t accomplish its goals.
“You’re talking about an extra 1½ seconds to change a clip, and a lot of these jokers use multiple guns,” he said.
In addition, Lindholm, who is a member of the Vermont Fish and Game Board, said the assault weapon ban could have unintended consequences.
“I hunt moose with a .308 semi-auto with a flash suppressor. Technically, it’s considered to be an assault rifle even though I hunt with a five-round magazine,” he said. “I didn’t buy it because it’s an assault rifle. I bought it because it’s rugged and I go into nasty places and have literally fallen on it without breaking the stock. You’ll never see this gun used in the kinds of killings the gun control laws are trying to prevent, but that gun would be banned under the law.”
Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Club, the state’s chapter of the National Rifle Association, said the proposed bans would fail in their intended goals.
“It seems like the president is focusing almost exclusively on firearms to the exclusion of the factors that contribute to crime,” Hughes said. “The history of gun control legislation shows it doesn’t work. Any restrictions simply have no impact on crime. There’s a reason they’re called criminals.”
But one avid gun owner, who will play a primary role in reviewing Obama’s proposals, said he’s keeping an open mind on gun control.
“I think most Vermonters understand the need for this discussion, and I’m planning on having a very fair hearing,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Wednesday morning that he plans to begin hearings Jan. 30.
Leahy, who owns several rifles and handguns — he said none holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition — said he believes more stringent background checks make sense and are only fair to gun dealers in Vermont who have long been required to perform background checks while gun show sellers have not.
“If you’re going to have rules, they have to apply to everybody,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.
On the other elements of the president’s proposal, Leahy said he’s waiting to hear from parties in support and opposed to the gun controls.
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