This past week, the House passed a bill, S.141, by a vote of 80 to 62. The bill has three main components: (1) it prohibits violent felons from owning firearms, (2) it requires state courts to submit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) the names of those whom a court has adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness, and (3) it establishes a process for individuals who are no longer so adjudged to regain their rights to purchase and possess firearms. This is a bill that both respects the Second Amendment and protects public safety.
It was an interesting, although sometimes frustrating debate. Throughout this session I have respected and understood the rationale behind different perspectives even if I disagreed with them. But most of the arguments against S.141 were worthy of little respect as they mostly relied on conspiracy theories, irrelevancies, and misinformation. Those opposing the bill complained that it was born of out-of-state money supplied by Michael Bloomberg (the previous Mayor of New York City and an opponent of the National Rifle Association). A conspiracy theory and, more importantly, irrelevant. The bill had broad support from Vermonters, including many of my own constituents.
Opponents also argued that the bill would lead to veterans declining to seek treatment for ailments such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder out of fear that doing so would result in their losing their guns. Shamefully, opponents of the bill have obscured the purpose of the legislation and have stoked this very fear. If any veteran declines to seek treatment after this legislation passes, it will not be due to the contents of the law, but to the rhetoric of its opponents. Under the law, seeking voluntary treatment for a mental illness in no way would cause one’s name to be submitted to the NICS. A person’s name is submitted to the NICS only if a court finds by clear and convincing evidence that an order should be issued requiring that individual to enter treatment because he or she is a danger to himself, herself, or others.
S.141 stood on its own merits. During the floor debate, a number of proponents of the bill offered moving and persuasive testimony. One member, a Vietnam veteran, explained that he has received voluntary treatment over the past 30 years in his fight with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. S.141 would not have applied to him, he noted. Another member closed the debate by telling of his brother who had been adjudged to be a danger to himself but was nonetheless able to purchase a firearm, which he used to commit suicide.
In explaining her vote, another proponent of the bill summed up the issue nicely:
“Vermont has a strong culture of gun responsibility, but giving easy access to violent felons has never been part of that. Federal law already prohibits dangerous people from possessing weapons, but right now aspects of this law can’t be enforced at the state level. We want our state to be a place where a violent felon knows that if he or she has a gun they will be prosecuted. We want the family members of those who have recently been adjudicated as a danger to themselves to know that if their loved one tries to buy a gun at a gun shop, the background check will stop them. We want to be clear that people can recover from mental illness, and that if someone who has been previously adjudicated gets better, there is a process in place so that they can get their rights restored. The bill does all of this, while carefully protecting the right to bear arms.”
So, probably the most controversial bill that we will face this session is behind us. There will, of course, still be disagreements and heated debate when the House takes up other issues such as requiring paid sick leave. It should continue to be engaging over the final few weeks of the session.