MONTPELIER -- Last fall, Gov. Peter Shumlin publicly supported an initiative that is supposed to make it easier for the state to keep guns out of the hands of alleged domestic abusers.

A fee mechanism to pay for safe storage facilities is part of that initiative.

The Shumlin administration brokered an agreement to work language into a broader fee bill, H.735, instead of creating a separate bill that could become a vehicle for any number of gun control amendments.

The fee bill started in the House Ways and Means Committee, was passed on the House floor and now is in the Senate Finance Committee.

"The agreement with the Federation (of Sportsmen's Clubs) was that this would be in the fee bill, that legislation would be limited to setting up a fee and a policy on the storage and that it would not be a separate bill. They did not want a separate bill going out to the House floor and having all types of amendments coming from the floor," according to Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex.

At a news conference in October on the fee-for-storage provision, anti-domestic violence advocates, Waite-Simpson, the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and others joined in supporting the measure.

They emphasized how the fee will not change the law but create a better mechanism for enforcing a judge's orders requiring the temporary confiscation of firearms owned by an individual who is subject to a relief from abuse order.

Judges in Vermont already have the authority to prohibit domestic violence defendants from possessing weapons.

Vermont has among the least restrictive gun control laws in the country. Vermonters can, for example, carry concealed guns without a permit.

Ann Braden speaks at a gun safety rally in the Statehouse. (Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger)
Ann Braden speaks at a gun safety rally in the Statehouse. (Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger)
It is also permissible to carry guns on public property, with the exception of courts and school grounds.

Federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from possessing weapons, but because Vermont does not have a mirror statute on the books, local law enforcement officers who apprehend known domestic violence offenders have no authority to seize their weapons. Only federal agents (a handful of whom work in the state) have jurisdiction.

The gun storage fee

The wording in the fee bill levies a $4 per week fee on defendants ordered by a judge to surrender their firearms as a result of a relief from abuse order. The guns can be kept by a local sheriff's department or a federally licensed firearms dealer, the bill says.

"The agreement was between the governor and the Sportsmen's Federation and the Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence. (The Network) had this on their list of things that we really needed to address for quite some time," Waite-Simpson said.

Waite-Simpson is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and several times has introduced unsuccessful gun control legislation.

Both the Vermont Network for Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence and the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs on Thursday said they had conversations with the administration surrounding the measure.

House Speaker Shap Smith also said the administration alerted him it would be coming, and talked with Waite-Simpson and others about the need for a fee to create storage facilities.

"The governor's been very forthright," said Evan Hughes, of the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "He said there would be no new law. That we would use existing law to achieve a more effective result in dealing with making it possible for the storage of firearms for people who are subject to a relief from abuse order."

Hughes said he supports the fee bill but the current version needs some changes, such as a cap on fees.

"If it doesn't work for everybody it doesn't work for anybody," he said.

Hughes said just because the Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs did not testify at all on this bill doesn't mean their position isn't known at the Statehouse.

Sarah Kenney, Associate Director of Public Policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence said keeping guns out of the hands of domestic violence offenders is a priority for her organization and in the past the network had trouble getting traction.

They approached the governor last fall and he agreed this was an issue that should be resolved, she said.

"I told them that this was our No. 1 priority this year," she said.

Kenney said she testified this year on the storage issue before the House Judiciary Committee. The House Ways and Means Committee wrote a memo to the Judiciary Committee seeking recommendations about the firearm storage fee.

Smith said on Thursday made it clear he would not allow the fee bill to become a vehicle for other gun amendments.

"My view was that those amendments likely would be not germane," Smith said.

Shumlin, a Democrat, has long opposed gun control proposals. A call to the governor's office late Thursday afternoon was not returned.

Democratic leadership in the Vermont Legislature has also refused to consider any restrictions on guns. However, Burlington's gun control charter changes, approved Tuesday by voters in the Queen City, may indicate that some attitudes have shifted.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely lawmakers this year will debate Burlington's gun control charter changes.