Senate unanimously approves `extreme risk' gun bill

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Senators gave their unanimous seal of approval on Wednesday to the first of what is expected to be a series of gun control laws after a thwarted school shooting in Fair Haven — following a mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 — "jolted" the state's policymakers.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he never expected the bill to make it this far when he introduced it months ago, a symbol of how far the gun control debate has shifted in just a few weeks.

"One thing I'm sure of is Vermont is not immune," he said of gun violence. "I think we knew that before Fair Haven, but Fair Haven has jolted us all."

Police arrested Jack Sawyer, 18, earlier this month saying he was creating a kill list of students and staff at Fair Haven Union High School and preparing to carry an attack on the school. Sawyer was arrested days after a 19-year-old man killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Sawyer faces a number of charges, including attempted aggravated murder, that if he is convicted could keep him in prison for life. Prosecutors began arguments on Tuesday to keep him in prison ahead of trial. The defense attorney representing Sawyer has said the charges against his client are too severe.

Governor Phil Scott, who previously said he believed the state's existing gun laws were sufficient, has had a change of heart in recent weeks after seeing how close Vermont had come to having to grapple with its own school shooting.

Sears, who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel had been careful to balance the need to protect people from violence with Constitutional guarantees around the rights of property and privacy.

One one side of the gun control debate, he said, people have been telling him "slow down, you're going too fast" while on the other people are saying "this is common sense, pass it." S.221 seeks to find common ground by focusing only on individuals who are deemed an "extreme risk," he said.

The bill gives the authorities the ability to act in situations involving someone believed to be planning to commit an act of domestic violence or suicide, or a person believed to be planning mass harm, such as a school shooting. Once a gun is taken away, it can be held for a 15-day "cooling off period" that can be extended at the discretion of a judge. It can also be appealed by the gun owner.

All 30 senators voted to approve the bill, which still needs final approval in the Senate before being sent to the House, which has already started taking testimony on the bill.

Sen. Sears said passing S.221 is only the beginning of efforts in the Statehouse to create legislation that addresses the threat of gun violence.

"Debate doesn't end with this bill," he said, "it starts with this bill."

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