MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill that would allow police to remove guns from a domestic violence situation without due process passed out of committee and is headed to the House floor.
On Wednesday, lawmakers of the House Judiciary Committee approved H. 422 by a 7-4 party-line vote, with seven Democrats voting in favor and four Republicans voting against.
Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, says the bill could face numerous constitutional challenges.
“I am especially concerned about the Second Amendment Article 16 rights of the victim,” he said.
If police are allowed to remove weapons from the scene of a domestic dispute, Bradley says, that could inadvertently leave the victim defenseless.
“From personal experience, I can tell you, you cannot remove all weapons, and you will leave the vulnerable with no means of self-defense,” domestic violence survivor Estella Leach wrote as part of her written testimony to the committee. “A restraining order is meaningless against someone who is intent on retribution.”
Bradley added that the bill could also be challenged on other grounds, including Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. The bill has seen numerous changes regarding the weapons an officer can confiscate during a domestic violence situation.
“They moved away from trying to define ‘weapons’ and finally just threw in the towel and said, ‘Well let’s just use “firearms” ’ because that’s what they were after all along,” Bradley said.
Another dispute over language is whether police “shall” or “may” confiscate guns. The bill as passed out of committee says “may.”
Committee Vice Chair Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, said that the bill has been “revised in a way as narrow as we can” to maintain its constitutionality while ensuring a victim’s safety.
State Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, a co-sponsor of H. 422, said that he’s taken some flak from his constituents for this bill. Still, he argues that if gun owners keep their guns secure and out of sight during a domestic dispute, then there shouldn’t be any guns removed. He says he could not support any bill that allows confiscation of secured or out-of-sight weapons without a warrant.
While some studies make a correlation between high rates of gun ownership and homicides against women, gun rights advocates note that statistics for Vermont published by the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence conflict with statistics from the FBI and the Vermont Crime Information Center.
The conflicting data may be owed to the fact that the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence counts suicides as domestic violence homicides, even in cases where domestic violence was reported many years prior to the suicide.
State Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and main sponsor of H.422, expressed satisfaction with the committee’s work.
“This is a very necessary ability for law enforcement that does not currently exist,” she said.
Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre, took issue with the change of language regarding “weapons” or “firearms.” He said that the bill needs to account for domestic disputes outside the home setting, so if there’s an apparent “weapon” of any kind, it should be taken.
“I wish that they would bring back the original language,” he said.
Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected]