My, my! Touchy aren't they?
My, my! Touchy aren't they?
Hundreds of Vermont residents are expected to pack the state House chamber for a public hearing Tuesday night on Senate Bill 31, which would expand background checks from retail to private gun sales, step up reporting about people deemed psychologically unfit to have a gun and add state jurisdiction to what is now just federal enforcement of the ban on convicted felons possessing guns.
The bill has drawn strong opposition from powerful gun-rights groups and from Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat and lifelong hunter.
Why the Second Amendment fervor in a state that Election Day exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and other media have found to be among the most liberal?
"I think it's a result of years and years of Vermonters respecting guns as a tool to manage wildlife and to put food on the table," Shumlin said in an interview. "That's what motivates us to own a gun. It's not necessarily what motivates someone who lives in Manhattan to own a gun."
Whether people grew up in a hunting family as he did "really influences how you look at this," the governor added.
Hunters have nothing to worry about, said Ann Braden of Brattleboro, president of the group Gun Sense Vermont, which supports the measure.
"This legislation doesn't affect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. It's focused exclusively on keeping guns out of the hands of convicted abusers, violent felons, and drug traffickers," she said.
But the gun-rights groups are adamant: "No more gun control bills," said Bill Moore of Vermont Traditions Coalition. "We don't need them in the safest state in the nation."
There's widespread concern among gun owners about background checks in general, said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.
"A lot of people in the gun-owning community see every step down the regulatory road eventually leads toward registration and confiscation," Hughes said.
Background check supporters say the federal government does not keep a record of the sale — that is kept in the gun shop. But law enforcement can have access to the records.
FBI figures showed Vermont was the safest state in the country in 2013, with 115 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That was less than a third the national rate of 368 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
That's often attributed to having no big urban areas — the state's largest city is Burlington, population about 40,000. A sparser population and civic traditions like the New England town meeting also are sometimes cited. "I think there's a strong sense of community in Vermont," said Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn.
The bill, sponsored by the top three Democrats in the Vermont Senate, has three main components:
— It would expand background checks to private sales, with an exemption for sales between family members. If one neighbor wants to sell a gun to another, they must approach a federally-licensed firearms dealer, who would run an electronic background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
— It would make it a violation of state law as well as federal law for convicted felons to possess firearms. This would give state and local police new power to enforce the law.
— It would require that anyone found by a court to have a mental disorder making him or her a danger to self or others, or who had been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, or who had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, to have that information forwarded to the federal background check database for exclusion from being allowed to buy a gun.
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