MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill that passed the Vermont House without controversy is now in doubt after gun-rights advocates exposed provisions allowing police to take guns during domestic disputes.
“It’s a highly illegal confiscation bill,” Gun Owners of Vermont president Ed Cutler told Vermont Watchdog.
“H.735 is a forfeiture bill that tells police if a person gets a temporary restraining order, they have to come into the house and take all weapons — not just firearms, but all weapons.”
At first glance H.735 appears to propose fee updates on mundane items — from lottery ticket sales to license renewals. Yet tucked away in the bill are provisions for the storage of firearms confiscated during domestic disputes. Governor Peter Shumlin requested the gun-related provisions in October.
The seemingly innocuous fees came under fire during last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
State Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) blasted the bill, saying Vermonters would be “deprived of their property and … told they have to pay to get it back without ever having had a day in court.” Confiscating Vermonters’ property without due process violates the U.S. Constitution, he said.
“I don’t own a gun, but I do care about the Constitution, and when you bypass that, I find that offensive.”
Cutler told Watchdog the bill applies to any dangerous objects found on site during a domestic-dispute investigation.
“It could be steak knives, it could be firearms, bows and arrows, baseball bats, chainsaws, you name it. It leaves it to the discretion of the cop,” he said.
Sarah Kenney, the public policy director for Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the provisions are necessary because of “alarming parallels between access to firearms and lethality in domestic violence cases.” She said women who obtain restraining orders are at risk of violent attack.
Moreover, Kenney said, judges rarely order police to hold guns in domestic dispute cases because law enforcement agencies have nowhere to store them. H.735 would address that by having agencies charge suspects a fee of $4 per week for the storage of weapons confiscated during a dispute.
In the hearings,state Senator Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, asked whether judges ever tell Burlington police not to hold guns because to a lack of storage space. Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling responded, “No.”
When Watchdog asked Cutler why the bill sailed through the House without controversy, he replied, “They didn’t know it was a forfeiture bill; they thought it was a fee bill.”
Statutes such as H.735 are popular with gun control groups because they provide for local enforcement of federal gun laws. While federal law — the “Lautenberg Amendment” — prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms, enforcement is virtually nonexistent, as it requires action by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
To the dismay of pro-gun groups, the Supreme Court in March broadened the interpretation of the Lautenberg Amendment to include “offensive touching.” Justice Antonin Scalia warned the ruling eventually could require gun confiscation for mere name-calling.
States have reacted to such gun laws by prohibiting local enforcement. According to StandWithKansas.org, a website that tracks state resistance to federal gun regulations, Kansas, Alaska and Idaho have laws banning local compliance with federal gun regulations. Missouri’s Legislature passed a similar bill by veto-proof majority last week.
Cutler told Watchdog he would like to see similar legislation passed in Vermont. Adding amendments to H.735 could provide that opportunity.
“H.735 is a weapons bill. And if it’s a weapons bill, they can put amendments on it.”