By: Jon Street
BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s against state law to try to regulate guns in the Green Mountain State, but city officials here are looking at what may be a loophole.
Burlington wants to be able to confiscate and secure weapons for up to five days following a domestic dispute, and enact other restrictions.
City Councilman Norm Blais told Vermont Watchdog the council has the authority to pass new city gun regulations because of a single clause — “except as otherwise provided by law” — that proceeds the state law making the firearms regulations illegal in Vermont.
Blais was the first in the city to push for new gun laws after the December 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.
“To those people who say we don’t need this legislation in Burlington because nothing like this has ever happened here before, well the people of Newtown, Conn. could have said that before Dec. (14),” Blais said during a City Council meeting earlier this year.
During that meeting, Blais proposed an amendment to Burlington’s charter that would have banned semi-automatic weapons and magazine clips capable of holding multiple rounds. But with that proposal, the Ward 6 councilman unleashed a furious debate that is far from settled.
“They have an anti-gun agenda,” Burlington resident Scott Chapman said. “All of the ordinances ultimately end up in confiscation.”
Two members of the seven-member City Council, Rachel Siegel and Tom Ayres, empathized with those who thought the amendment was too far reaching and the proposal fell flat.
But that hasn’t stopped Blais.
While he failed to win support from Siegel and Ayres for an all-out ban on assault weapons, Blais has managed to garner their support on a few less extreme ordinances.
The first proposal would allow police to seize firearms for up to five days following a domestic dispute. A second ordinance would make it illegal to carry a firearm inside a liquor establishment, while the third would require residents to obtain a permit before carrying a concealed weapon.
Even the city’s more moderate approaches to gun control, however, has some residents up in arms.
“What’s being proposed conflicts directly with the Vermont State Constitution. It’s clear the ordinances are an assault on one’s individual right to bear arms,” said Bill Moore, a gun-rights activist and spokesman for Gun Owners of Vermont.
But Blais says even constitutional rights have some limits.
“Any constitutional right is subject to governmental regulation — free speech, free assembly — all those are amendable to government regulation that’s reasonable,” Blais said.
Even if the City Council approves the ordinances, that’s just the beginning of the process. Voters would get their say, and if they approve, the measures would move to the Vermont General Assembly for approval.
Yet Chapman, the Burlington resident, says the proposals are nothing more than an attempt to override the state’s gun laws.
“What they’re asking for is the ability to supersede state law with a city ordinance,” Chapman said. “They’re looking for anything they can start to build upon to eventually abolish the ownership of firearms in Vermont.”
While city officials argue that putting more new gun ordinances forward will reduce the threat of gun violence, Darin Goens, state liaison to Vermont for the National Rifle Association, said the proposals would do “nothing” to improve safety or reduce violent crime.
“Vermont’s current gun laws are already effective as the state has one of the lowest crime rates in the country,” Goens added.
Indeed, a look at the FBI’s most recent crime data shows that Vermont in 2011 had a relatively low violent-crime rate with an average of 135.2 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Nationally, the violent crime rate stood at 386.3 per 100,000 people.
Contact Jon Street at [email protected]