Saturday February 2, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Historically home to some of the most lax gun laws in the country, Vermont on Friday saw a group of lawmakers propose bills that would restrict high-capacity magazines and step up background checks for buyers.

The debate over gun restrictions is an odd one in Vermont, where residents range widely in their familiarity with guns. Some lawmakers even attended a sort of show-and-tell with the Capitol Police, where Chief Les Dimmick provided firearms from his own collection and those of some friends to help legislators gets acquainted with what they might be regulating.

Standing a few from a table where police had displayed weapons including a semi-automatic Colt AR-15 and a pair of hunting rifles, Rep. Suzi Wizowaty readily volunteered that she is not a gun person.

"Guns scare me. I would never want to have a gun in my own home," the Burlington Democrat said. "They scare me to death."

But as a member of the Judiciary Committee of the Vermont House, Wizowaty finds herself at the center of a debate already occurring in many places around the country and just coming to Vermont.

Among the proposals introduced Friday are bills that would extend background checks to purchases at gun shows and have state law match the federal ban on felons possessing firearms. Another provision would have the state Department of Mental Health share information with the federal background check system.

Lawmakers agreed it's too early to say what shape legislation might take.

Even at the news conference, there was not unanimity on all the proposed changes. One of the invited speakers, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, said he would oppose a ban on magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, saying it "would make criminals out of law-abiding Vermonters" who own them.

The push for legislation follows a spate of mass shootings around the country in recent years, including the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.

For some lawmakers, the debate is their first real exposure to guns.

"I think it's wonderful for us to know what we're talking about," Wizowaty said as she eyed Dimmick's display. "I've reached out to constituents to educate me, since I come to this knowing virtually nothing about guns."

Another who said he had little to no experience with firearms was House Judiciary Chairman William Lippert, D-Hinesburg.

Lippert was vice chairman of the panel in 2000 when he was instrumental in passage of the first-in-the-nation civil union law for same-sex couples.

Lippert, who is gay, said he found during that hugely contentious debate that it was important for people from different cultural backgrounds to reach out to their neighbors and make personal connections.

He said he hoped for something similar this time and planned on taking advantage of invitations from constituents to meet with them about their firearm ownership. A personal connection between neighbors can help foster understanding, even if both parties disagree, he said.

"(I) may not agree with them on every issue, but it's not helpful for me to act as if or treat them as foreign to me," Lippert said.