Addressing Firearms Violence

Earlier this month, the legislature passed S.30, a bill that would enact a number of provisions that address firearm violence. By the time this column is published, we should know if the Governor has signed or vetoed it. I believe it implements wise policies and should become law.

First, the bill prohibits possession of firearms in hospitals. It would be illegal to bring any type of firearm into a hospital building. Such location restrictions already exist in Vermont for our schools and court buildings.

Several hospital administrators testified before the House Judiciary Committee, all of whom were strongly in favor of this bill. The moment someone receives terrible news in the form of a medical diagnosis for themselves or a family member can be very emotional. Often, the first reaction is anger directed at the doctor and other medical staff. Our witnesses repeatedly stressed that guns should not be part of this equation.

While most hospitals already ban guns from their premises, hospital administrators testified that changing this restriction from a hospital mandate to a state law would result in more awareness and compliance. While many hospitals employ security, those personnel are not armed. With individual hospital bans as opposed to a state law, the police can only be called when someone has been asked to remove their firearm from a hospital building and refused.

Second, the bill would close what has come to be known as the Charleston Loophole. The name comes from a terrible incident in Charleston, South Carolina where the shooter had been able to purchase a gun without a completed background check. In Vermont, anyone purchasing a firearm needs to undergo a background check. However, gun purchases can legally go forward after three days if the background check has not been completed within that period. The Charleston gunman would have been prohibited from having a firearm, but he was allowed to make the purchase because his background check was incomplete after three days.

Because 97% of all background checks are completed within three days, only a small number of Vermonters will be inconvenienced by closing this loophole. In Vermont, over the past two years, 28 firearms were sold to individuals who should have been prohibited from owning a firearm, but they were able to make the purchase because three days had passed without a completed background check. As of the end of November of last year, only 19 of those firearms had been retrieved.

The bill also clarifies that licensed medical care providers can, without violating their professional and legal codes of conduct, share concerns with law enforcement about patients who may use a firearm to harm themselves or others. This change will alleviate medical professionals’ concerns over personal repercussions for alerting law enforcement to situations where an individual or the public is at risk. It will help make our State safer.

Finally, the bill codifies a court’s ability to order relinquishment of firearms in emergency relief from abuse orders (RFA). Currently, judges have the inherent authority to order relinquishment of firearms as a part of an RFA, and S.30 aims to bring statutory language in line with legal practice. It clearly states that the relinquishment of firearms is an option available to judges when assessing how to best protect the safety of those seeking relief from abuse.

This legal pathway to safety is essential. Victims of domestic violence are at highest risk of being killed during the time that they are leaving an abusive relationship. It is critical to remove firearms from these volatile and dangerous situations.