Vermont House passes bill designed to keep guns from criminals, mentally ill

The Vermont House on Friday passed a bill designed to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons and people who are dangerously mentally ill.

The measure approved by an 80-62 vote is similar to a version already approved by the Senate.

One difference is that the Senate bill calls for an 18-month waiting period before someone deemed no longer mentally ill can seek to have their gun rights restored. The House version does not do that.

If the Senate does not agree with the change, the differences would have to be worked out in a conference committee.

The bill would make it a crime in Vermont for many convicted felons to possess firearms, which already is a crime under federal law. The bill also calls on the state to begin reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when someone has been found by a court to be mentally ill and a danger to himself or herself, or others.

Final House passage came after emotional floor speeches including one by Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, who fought to control his composure as he told of the firearm suicide of his brother, who was diagnosed at 22 as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

"We'd been down to the local gun store. My dad said, 'Jim, don't you dare sell my son a gun,'" Young recalled. "That worked in Glover, but he only had to go as far as Lyndonville to buy a gun. ... If he was in that database, nobody would have sold him a gun."

During two days of debate, lawmakers had been "talking about this in theory, without a face and a name," Young said. "Well, his name was Timothy James Young. He looked a lot like me. Maybe that was one life we could have saved with this bill."

Critics of the bill called it an assault on the right to bear arms.

"Vermonters have always understood the right to protect ourselves, without infringement from government — local, state or federal," said Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton. "I vote no for this bill to stand up for nearly 250 years of tradition and to protect the right to bear arms for future generations of Vermonters," he added.

Both sides declared victory, with Bill Moore of the Vermont Tradition Coalition saying, "This is a loss for Gun Sense" Vermont, a group that lobbied for the bill.

Gun rights groups vehemently opposed, and got stripped from the bill, a provision that would have expanded background checks for the purchase of firearms from gun shops and gun shows to all private sales other than those between immediate family members.

Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont, said, "We definitely see this as a huge step for democracy and an important step for gun violence legislation."

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said frequently that Vermont does not need new gun laws. But in an interview Friday, he left open the possibility he might sign the bill.

"I'll pass judgment on it when it gets to me. All I can say is that the changes that have been made to the bill since it was introduced make it almost unrecognizable from the bill that was introduced," Shumlin said. "And that's the bill I objected to."