MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill in the House Judiciary Committee would let police officers at the scene of any alleged domestic violence incident confiscate firearms without a judge or jury involved.
H.422 was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 23 and hearings started the following day. Witnesses giving testimony this week include, among others, Ann Braden, president of the anti-gun group Gun Sense Vermont, and Auburn Watersong, associate public policy director for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, is the primary sponsor of the bill, along with eight Democrats and one Progressive.
Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, told Watchdog he opposes a process of allowing police to seize firearms without a court order.
“If police are called to a domestic violence situation and an arrest is made, this bill would authorize the officer to remove any dangerous weapons either that are in possession of the person being arrested or that are in the immediate visible vicinity, or any that are found as result of a consensual search,” he said.
Bradley explained that the status-quo in Vermont is that weapons can be taken in a domestic violence situation, but that decision needs to be made by a judge when the alleged abuser gets a hearing.
“The issue at hand here is one of due process,” he said.
Ed Larson of the Vermont Traditions Coalition agreed that current law requires due process, and that judges should continue to be involved so that individuals aren’t merely presumed to be guilty.
“I don’t know that a judge would be happy about a policeman taking it without a due process in place,” he said. “At least with having a judge there you have an opportunity to state your case and be proven guilty before your peers. This [bill] assumes you are guilty and makes you have to prove your innocence.”
Ally Scanlon, a family and youth advocacy specialist at the Clarina Howard Nichols Center, a domestic violence shelter in Morrisville, said it’s better to get guns out of a domestic violence situation quickly.
“Whatever is going to help get weapons removed more immediately is what I would be in favor of,” she said.
Scanlon added that her only concern is, if the decision to seize guns is left up to police officers, they might not take weapons often enough.
Bradley said he also objects to the way the bill broadly defines ‘weapon,’ which could include almost any household object that might be wielded with intent to inflict harm.
H.422 states that its definition of “dangerous or deadly weapon” is taken from 13 V.S.A.§4016(a)(2) of the Vermont Statutes: “Dangerous or deadly weapon means any firearm or other weapon, device, instrument, material, or substance, whether animate or inanimate, which in the manner it is used or is intended to be used, is known to be capable of producing death or serious bodily injury.”
Each year, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence provides lawmakers with reports on sexual and domestic violence. A statistical insert from one of the reports counts six domestic violence related homicides in 2014, and says four were “committed with firearms.” It adds that, of 123 domestic violence related homicides between 1994 and 2014, about 57 percent “were committed with firearms.”
Bradley says the group reports nearly twice as many deaths as reported by the FBI and the Vermont Crime Information Center. He said the group wrongly includes suicides as domestic violence-related deaths, even in cases when the alleged domestic abuse occurred several years in the past.
Both Bradley and Larson argue that taking guns out of a home could actually make the situation more dangerous for victims of domestic violence.
“If the arresting officer doesn’t have the right information and makes an assumption, he could make a terrible mistake,” Larson said.
He added that while he sympathizes with the cause of the bill, he believes due process should not be removed.
“No one wants to see people kill people, particularly domestic partners,” he said. “We would love to see a reduction in domestic abuse, but we can’t thwart constitutional due process to do that.”
Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. Contact him [email protected]