Vt. lawmakers take testimony on gun bills

Published: Jan. 30, 2018 at 3:51 PM EST
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Vermonters descended on the Statehouse Tuesday to weigh in on a divisive topic -- gun rights in Vermont.

Tuesday night's hearing is an opportunity for Vermonters to weigh in on the state's gun laws. The goal for some advocates of a House bill is to focus on addressing the threat of homicide from domestic violence situations.

H.422 passed the House last March by a 78 to 60 margin. It would allow law enforcement to confiscate dangerous or deadly weapons -- including firearms - without a court order for up to five days. The confiscation could happen if a person is arrested or cited for domestic assault.

"It's important that they be able to do at that time in order to protect victims from potential further violence or even homicide," said Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. He says for police to seize a weapon it would have to be in the immediate possession or control of the person being arrested, or cited. It would also have to be in plain view of the officer, or discovered during a consensual search. Police must first have probable cause to arrest someone for domestic violence. "They would have to get over that hurdle before they were able to remove a weapon."

House Judiciary Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, says seventeen other states have a similar law on the books -- including New Hampshire -- where the seizure is mandatory. In Vermont, police could decide to leave weapons in the home.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, sees problems with the House bill because there is no court process. "I believe it may in fact violate the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting us from unreasonable search and seizure," Sears said. He has sponsored S.221, which would establish a legal procedure for police to obtain an extreme risk protection order from a judge. "I don't think we're going to be dealing with 422. If we deal with anything it will be 221."

Sen. Sears says his bill is based on laws in Washington and Oregon. It would prevent someone from possessing a firearm for up to one year if a judge finds that the person poses a significant danger to themselves or another person. "For the judge to weigh in it would be that day or the next day at the latest," he said.

A court hearing would then take place within seven days to determine if the weapons would continue to be held. Sears says his bill would protect people beyond domestic violence victims, while providing a higher standard for seizure.

A second Senate bill, S.6, would implement universal background checks for all firearm transactions. Similar legislation has failed to get out of committee in the past, and is not expected to this year, either. "I have not changed my view on the universal background check," Sen Sears said.