By Michael Bielawski | For Vermont Watchdog
MONTPELIER, Vt. — The question of local municipal rights versus state preemption was on the table at a gun control hearing at the Statehouse on Thursday.
Three gun-related changes to the Burlington city charter, dismissed by state legislators last year, are back for review this year in the House Committee on Government Operations.
Almost three hours of testimony was heard, first from Burlington city leaders, and then from about 25 members of the public. About two thirds of the speakers were against the measures, largely because they conflict with the Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights — a state statute enacted in 1988 that prohibits municipalities from regulating firearms.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who was present at the hearing to argue for local control over firearms, acknowledged the conflict.
“The Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights is state statute created by previous occupants of your offices,” Weinberger said. “You have the express authority, and I would argue the express responsibility, to amend state statute to meet today’s public challenges.”
One of the three bills under consideration, H.556, requires gun owners to keep guns locked up at home so children can’t access them. Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, who also appeared before the committee, said the bill grants police the authority to enforce the policy during an investigation following an incident.
Two other municipal charter changes have been introduced in the Legislature as bills.
H.557, which relates to domestic violence, states that police may confiscate guns for a period of five days in cases where a resident is accused of domestic assault, and if there is reasonable suspicion to think the accused continues to be a threat to the alleged victim. The bill’s previous iteration used the language “domestic abuse.”
H.558 says that guns may not be taken into locations that have a license to serve alcohol. While a previous version applied to the entire property, including parking lots, the bill has been narrowed to the establishment only.
Comments from the public ranged from both sides of the debate. Benjamin Bidal, a senior at the University of Vermont and bartender on Church Street, said he supports the prohibition on guns in establishments with a liquor license.
“Just recently, I found myself at my workplace standing between a group of college students and a smaller group of older men, who were physically threatening violence by lifting their shirts and showing their guns to the students. If it hadn’t been for one of the older men who was visibly less inebriated and able to help me deescalate the situation, I honestly can’t tell you what the situation could have turned into.”
Bill Moore, legislative director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, said changes made to the bills since last year still fail to make them comply with the state constitution.
“Each of these ordinances gets to the heart of that right in various ways, not the least of which is due process before the seizure,” Moore said. “I understand that word has been removed from the bills, but as a practical matter these act to seize my right preemptively without due process — I would submit to you that the word seizure is still in the bill, although it’s not in writing.”
Regarding H.557, the domestic violence bill, Auburn Watersong, associate director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, offered statistics to support the measure.
“Just having a gun in the home makes an incident of domestic violence five times more likely to lead to murder,” she said. “Family and intimate assaults with firearms are 12 times more likely to result in deaths than non-firearm assaults. This research suggests that limiting access to guns will lead to less intimate and family assaults.”
When it comes to violence, Vermont is among the safest states in the country. The Green Mountain state has fewer than 115 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to FBI and census statistics. Gun rights advocates say the state’s low crime directly corresponds to its high rate of gun ownership — about 45 percent of households keep guns.
While voters approved three city ordinances in 2014, Scott Chapman, a resident of Burlington, testified that the bills do not necessarily represent the will of the people.
“They did not allow testimony from the people on the opposite side,” Chapman said. “Additionally, they moved the traditional committee meeting time from the evening, when most people could attend, to midday, midweek. There was actually an email trail between City Council President Joan Shannon and (City Councilor) Rachel Siegel which made mention it would be harder for the pro-gun side to attend if they were held at that time.”
Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportmen’s Clubs, thinks municipalities taking the lead on gun laws are out of order.
“Vermont is a Dillon’s Rules state,” he said. “That means that the state government is dominant in the state. It is not a local control state. By being a Dillon’s Rules state, that means municipalities do not have powers unless specifically granted by the state.”
Hughes went on to explain how the Sportmen’s Bill of Rights clarifies the rights of the state.
After the hearing, committee members said they would consult with lawyers before making their next move.
Contact Michael Bielawski at firstname.lastname@example.org