By DAVE GRAM | Associated Press
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont House gave preliminary approval to a bill to allow the state prosecution of some convicted criminals for possession of firearms and to require the reporting of individuals deemed dangerously mentally ill to a federal background check system.
The House voted 79-60, and is expected to take a final vote Friday.
Thursday's action came more than two months after hundreds of Vermonters packed a public hearing at the Statehouse, with members of the gun control group Gun Sense Vermont wearing bright green and the more numerous members of gun-rights groups donning hunter orange.
“This is a bill that both respects the Second Amendment and protects public safety,'' said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne and the assistant House majority leader at the conclusion of Thursday's debate.
But Rep. Donald Turner, R-Milton and the minority leader, cited the passage in the state Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms. “By voting no, I stand for those 250 years of tradition by protecting the right to bear arms for our future generations,'' Turner said.
Vermont currently has few restrictions on gun ownership. An early provision to expand universal background checks beyond gun shops and gun shows to include most private sales was stripped from the measure after objections from gun-rights groups.
After passing in the Senate and advancing in the House, the bill now creates a new misdemeanor crime of gun possession by people with previous convictions for violent crimes, sex crimes against children and high-level drug offenses. Vermont is the only state without such a prohibition.
Gun-rights advocates called the state provision redundant because firearms possession by felons is already a federal crime.
The bill also calls for the state to report to the federal background-check databank the names of people who have been found by a court to be dangerously mentally ill. Webb said the authors of that provision wanted the families of such mentally ill people “to know that if their loved one tries to buy a gun at a gun shop a background check will stop them.''
A key part of the debate concerned the mechanism by which those once deemed mentally ill and found later to be no longer a danger to themselves or others could have their gun-ownership rights restored.
The bill says a person released from the custody of the Department of Mental Health could petition a court for the right to own a gun; prosecutors would then have six months to object and request a hearing; otherwise, the person's right is restored automatically.
Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, said she hoped Republicans would show as much concern for people with mental illness when it came time to vote on budgets for programs serving them.