Rep. Mike Yantachka
The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier is nicknamed “The People’s House.” For one thing, it is where legislators do “the people’s business.” Furthermore, unlike many other statehouses around the country, the public has complete access to both the building and their legislators when the Legislature is in session, usually January through early May. In fact, the Statehouse functions as a living museum, with free access and free tours all year long. Those Vermonters who let their representative know they will be visiting during the session are often introduced to and welcomed by the assembly during the announcements.
This accessibility is a hallmark of democracy in Vermont and is most apparent when groups of citizens, advocating for one issue or another, converge on the building en masse. The place becomes a beehive of bodies and voices. Press conferences by legislators or organizations are often held in the Cedar Creek Room, which features a huge mural of the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek in which the First Vermont Brigade played a key role in the Union victory.
It was such a press conference organized by Gun Sense Vermont on January 10 that saw more than 100 Vermont citizens from across the state pack the room in support of background checks for all firearms sales. Senator Phil Baruth introduced a bill (S.6) that would extend the federal requirement of a background check for firearm purchases from a licensed firearms dealer in Vermont to include private and internet purchases as well. A companion bill, which I plan to co-sponsor, is being drafted for introduction in the House. These bills would close the so-called “gun show loophole,” which today allows a prohibited person to obtain a gun without going through a background check. The definition of a “prohibited person” includes anyone convicted of a violent felony, anyone with a restraining order resulting from domestic abuse, and anyone judged in a court of law to be mentally ill and considered a danger to themselves or others.
Vermont is considered to be one of the safest states for gun violence per capita, so why do we need such a law? Governor Scott, as did his predecessor Governor Shumlin, has stated that he does not see a need for any more gun laws in Vermont. It is true that most gun owners in Vermont are responsible individuals and would pass a background check without any problems. However, we still read and hear about gun violence in Vermont, often perpetrated by individuals who fall into the prohibited category. According to the Gun Sense VT website, in the states that require criminal background checks on unlicensed handgun sales, there are 38% percent fewer women killed by guns than in the states that do not have this requirement. In Vermont in 2013, there were more than 1,000 final relief-from-abuse orders issued and 1,457 violent crimes that involved violence against intimate partners or family members. And of the 13 homicides in Vermont in 2013, eight were deemed related to domestic violence, and of these, four were committed with a firearm.
Gun trafficking is another problem fueled by the ubiquitous opiate crisis that results in guns being traded for drugs. I-91 has become known as the “iron pipeline” because drug dealers and criminals find it easier to buy a gun in Vermont than in southern New England or New York, states that have stronger gun laws. Without a federal universal background-check law, state laws are like Swiss cheese, with Vermont being one of the holes. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a report last October that showed 74 percent of firearms used in New York crimes were bought in states with weak gun laws, and that 489 of those were traced back to Vermont. While this was only 1 percent of the total, it illustrates that Vermont is a source. Every gun sale prevented by a background check has the potential of saving a life. A VPR-Castleton Polling Institute poll found that 84 percent of Vermonters, including more than 70% percent of gun owners, approve of universal background checks. Common sense dictates that the hole should be plugged, and I hope that Governor Scott will eventually agree.