Gun-waiting period law stirs passionate debate on both sides

Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
The House chamber was filled with about 200 members of the public who attended the hearing before before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

ALAN J. KEAYS
VTDigger

Bill Martin of Springfield talked of hunting as a teenager and of the guns he owned in the past as he urged Vermont lawmakers to extend a proposed waiting period for handgun sales, punctuating his call with his own personal story.

He told those gathered at the Statehouse for a public hearing on Tuesday evening that he was recounting what he hadn’t even told others, including those closest to him, about a time he contemplated suicide and planned to do it with a long gun.

However, Martin said, he had time to reflect, and he wants others to have that chance, too.

“I’m here to talk about it,” he told members of the House Judiciary Committee during a public hearing on firearms legislation.

Martin asked lawmakers to expand on a measure, S.169, that last month passed the Senate and sets a 24-hour waiting period for handguns only. He pushed lawmakers for a longer waiting period of 72 hours, and to include all firearms, including long guns.

Martin was one of many people who spoke out Tuesday evening for and against the waiting period legislation during the public hearing that drew a standing-room-only crowd to the House chambers.

Supporters of the legislation waited in line for an hour to sign up to speak, and entered the building from a left entrance. Opponents of the proposed bill waited, signed up and came in from an entrance on the right of the building.

While speakers alternated in two-minute bursts for two hours between those for and against, the crowd, at least based on those wearing hunter orange, appeared to include more of those opposing the legislation than supporting it.

Vickie Wendell of Poultney, standing in line before the hearing, said she opposed the legislation. She said it infringed on her constitutional rights.

“I came to protect my and everybody else’s Second Amendment rights,” she said, adding that she was attending with her 21-year-old daughter, Julia Gosselin. “I want her to have all the freedoms I had.”

Thad Cline of Westminster West, standing in a line on the opposite side of the Statehouse, said he supported the proposed legislation, calling it a commonsense measure.

“What part of compromise don’t they understand?” Cline asked of those opposing the bill.

Dwayne Tucker of Barre called the bill “nonsense” legislation.

“This is as far from necessary as one could fathom,” Tucker testified during the hearing, calling on lawmakers to turn their attention to improving mental health services in Vermont rather than the state’s gun laws.

The hearing took place as the House Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed bill, S.169, a compromise firearms measure that passed the Senate a little more than a week ago.

That bill calls for a 24-hour waiting period for handguns. Initially, Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, had proposed a bill, S.22, which called for a 48-hour waiting period for all gun purchases, and set requirements for the safe storage of firearms.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, Senate Judiciary Committee chair, offered the compromise that was eventually adopted with the 24-hour waiting period for handguns only. The safe storage provision of Baruth’s legislation was scrapped as well.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing of its own last month on the firearms legislation, with about 300 people attending the event at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center.

Police at the hearing Tuesday estimated the Statehouse crowd in the range of 200 people.

Supporters Tuesday said it would allow a “cooling off” period for people on the verge of taking “impulsive” actions, including suicide or harming someone else, using firearms.

Several of the supporters of the legislation urged a longer waiting period of at least 72 hours that would apply to all firearms.

Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Church in Vermont was among those asking for the extended waiting period of 72 hours for all firearms, adding that he understood it could “slightly inconvenience” some.

But, he said, that could make all the difference in saving someone’s life.

“It is about time, in more ways than one,” Ely said.

Opponents of the measure called it a violation of their constitutional rights, adding that a 24-hour delay would make it harder for people to access handguns for self-defense.

Ed Wilson of Morrisville said while many supporters of the legislation called themselves hunters and spoke about how a waiting period would not infringe on their ability to have a gun, that’s not how he views the constitutional right.

“I want to remind them that the Second Amendment is about shooting tyrants, and not deer,” Wilson said.

Both Alyssa and Rob Black of Essex, the parents of 23-year-old Andrew, who shot and killed himself late last year hours after buying a handgun, spoke out in favor of the waiting-period legislation.

Both said if such a waiting period had been in place, they believed their son would be alive today.

“It’s too late for Andrew,” Rob Black said, adding that adopting a waiting period will give others more time before acting on an impulse than his son had.

“I can’t tell you how many,” Black said, “but I can tell you this law will save lives.”

Near the end of the hearing, the event became a bit heated when Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, House Judiciary Committee chair, banged down the gavel as a few gun-rights supporters waved small American flags after an opponent of the legislation spoke.

That was followed by more gaveling from Grad as the hearing drew to a close as applause followed the last speaker of the evening voicing opposition to the waiting period bill.

Grad had started the hearing by telling the crowd to refrain from displays of support or opposition to speakers, on either side.

Whatever the lawmakers ultimately decide on the bill, Republican Gov. Phil Scott appears to be a roadblock for any firearms legislation passing this session.

The governor has said he’s not inclined to endorse new legislation, following a year when he endorsed historic gun control measures in a state that had been known for its permissive firearm laws.

The House Judiciary Committee is set to discuss the firearms legislation Wednesday.

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