By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
After more than 30 years in law enforcement, Mark Donka says he can’t remember a single instance in which a firearm was involved in a domestic dispute.
And the statistics mirror Donka’s experience: gun crime is rare in Vermont.
But that hasn’t stopped an on-going effort in Montpelier to confiscate guns from alleged domestic abusers.
To hear the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence tell it, Vermont’s domestic violence problem has become so serious the time has come for police to confiscate weapons from alleged domestic abusers. The group is the chief proponent of H.735, a “must pass” fees bill that mandates the seizure and storage of guns and ammo in domestic abuse cases. On Friday the Senate easily passed H.735 by a vote of 21-6.
Donka is one of many observers questioning the controversial legislation.
“I’m all for protecting victims of domestic violence, and I’ve been called to many of these incidents over the years — but as far as firearms being involved, I don’t remember any involving firearms,” he told Watchdog.org.
Donka, who attended a recent hearing on H.735, said homicide numbers proposed by the domestic violence group are grossly inaccurate.
“The domestic violence representative was spouting numbers that were really high. They were talking about 160 homicides in Vermont in the last 19 years that were domestic violence or firearms related,” he said.
The math didn’t gibe with Donka’s long experience working for the Hartford and Woodstock police forces.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, I’ve been a law enforcement officer for that time and I don’t ever remember these happening.’ It’s a pretty big thing if somebody gets shot in Vermont — it goes through the whole state and we know about it,” he said.
The bill is stirring a hornet’s nest of opposition from gun groups who say the legislation is a solution in search of a problem.
“Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence does some good things, but they have an agenda of taking firearms away from people who are accused or who have not been tried,” Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, told Watchdog.org.
“There have been 16 murders related to domestic violence in the last 19 years, and its 50-50 male-to-female victims,” he said.
To counter claims made by Cutler and other gun-rights groups, anti-domestic violence advocates cite the 2013 Vermont Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission Report, which states that, between 1994 and 2012, “56 percent of Vermont’s domestic violence related homicides were committed with firearms.”
The statistic, while startling at first, loses impact when the actual number of cases is examined. According to the report, Vermont had four homicides linked to domestic violence in 2012. One of the homicides was committed with a firearm.
Cutler worries about the potential impact of H.735, but he said confiscation is already occurring in some domestic cases.
“Law enforcement agents are already confiscating — they are confiscating on a court order,” he said. “It’s happening all over the state, but it’s happening in very rare instances.”
He further claimed the activity has no legal basis in current state statute.
“They’re saying it’s already law — but we can’t find the law,” he said.
Cutler said legal counsel informs his group that Vermont’s abuse prevention statute doesn’t provide for the confiscation of guns.
Officer Donka confirmed to Vermont Watchdog that police do occasionally seize weapons based on judicial orders.
“The judge has to review an affidavit and make the decision as to whether the restraining order will be issued — so at least a judge reviews it. In some respect we’ve been doing this for years, so I don’t see why we need to pass another law. They’re making a law for an issue we don’t have,” he said.
While the bill passed the House earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee is presently seeking compromise between opposing groups.
State Sen. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia, published an op-ed explaining the Judiciary Committee’s proposal that judges be given the discretion to place weapons with a third-party instead of with police — at least until the defendant’s due process rights are fulfilled.
Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence opposes the third-party option. Cutler said his group wants the gun language stripped from the bill entirely.
Speaking on behalf of the law enforcement community, Donka said most officers see no problem with Vermont’s current gun laws.
“Being in law enforcement, I would say that at least 80 percent of the rank-and-file law enforcement officers are pro-Second Amendment and don’t have any issues with the firearms laws in Vermont,” he said.
“So, I don’t know where they’re coming up with ‘there’s a problem in Vermont.’ I mean, we’re one of the safest states in the country — so why is there a problem?”
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]