Hopes for gun legislation before recess scuttled in House

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Gov. Phil Scott will not be getting his wish: Gun legislation won't land on his desk before Town Meeting Day next week and a weeklong legislative recess.

After the Senate unanimously passed S.221, a bill that allows authorities to obtain an on-the-spot warrant to seize guns from individuals deemed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others, a House committee Thursday night decided changes were in order.

Rather than wait to receive S.221, the House decided to take the provisions in the bill, change them, and add the new rules as an amendment to a separate piece of legislation, H.675, that will receive a final vote on the House floor Friday.

That move means the new bill, after it passes the House, will likely move to a conference committee later this month where senators and House representatives will need to work toward a compromise.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsor of S.221, said during a morning meeting at the Statehouse on gun law language that the House had blown a historic opportunity to show political unity in the fight against gun violence.

"It is what it is and I'll deal with it, but that is unfortunate we didn't take an opportunity we had in front of us to pass a bill 180-0," he said, referring to the number of lawmakers in both houses. "I'm just saying: opportunity lost by the Vermont Legislature."

In testimony this week, Scott administration officials said S.221 did not go far enough in confronting the issue of gun violence. Those concerns were addressed by amendments proposed in the House, which would lower the standard of proof applied by law enforcement officers when deciding to seize firearms and increase the length of time that a court order could hold firearms after being seized.

During testimony from John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, Sears said he realized the bill was not "perfect," but felt that it had made appropriate concessions in the name of compromise.

"I agree the bill is limited, but we had an opportunity in this state to send a message to Vermonters: the governor, the House, the Senate, all together 180 to nothing, and we blew it," Sears said.

Campbell, the former president of the Senate, said Sears had made a conscious decision to move quickly on the bill, which Gov. Phil Scott had hoped to sign before a weeklong recess beginning Friday.

"You're the one who took a very fast lead," Campbell said to Sears. "You could have avoided it and you didn't, and I commend you for that."

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caldonia and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview that he was discouraged that House members had broken a carefully crafted compromise.

"You have two polarized sides that worked very hard with all of the political entities in the Senate to arrive at a middle ground where everybody was happy," Benning said.

"As soon as you start going in to undermine the components that were in that piece of legislation, that unanimity is destroyed and people start to polarize and we start pointing fingers and it comes out sounding just like Washington D.C.," he said.

Benning said he was certain that the Senate would remain "rock solid" in its support of its version of the bill, which he still hoped to eventually deliver to the governor as passed in the Senate.

"The question is whether the House is going to try to do something in which the polarized sides get polarized again, and as soon as that happens we don't have 180 lawmakers to say yes to this bill," he said.

Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, proposed the amendments approved by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday night. He said his priority was the quality of the bill, rather than the desire for bipartisan support.

"I'm a little less concerned with unanimity than making sure we have the strongest bill that we can get," he said. "Also, the testimony we heard, we took two days of testimony, and most everybody except for folks from the gun lobby felt that the bill should be strengthened."

Others who testified before the committee included Jaye Pershing Johnson, legal counsel for the governor and representatives from the Attorney General's Office.

"We wished to get something to the governor in advance of Town Meeting, but we heard from the governor's office more importantly get it right, and we think that we have," LaLonde said. "So at some point there will be a meeting of the minds between the Senate and House, but what the vehicle for that is is unclear."

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