Vermont’s criminal statutes include laws banning firearms from schools and courthouses. Do they need additional laws extending that ban to government buildings, hospitals and child care centers?
The Senate Judiciary Committee took up that question on Wednesday, hearing nearly three hours of testimony on S. 30, a bill that would make possessing a firearm in those places a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P Chittenden, is supported by more than half of the Senate. Its 15 cosponsors include Senate President pro tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.
Baruth said he submitted the bill worded as briefly and as simply as possible to gain consensus. “If you were to ask the average Vermonter they would say those are common-sense ideas,” he said. “You don’t need and don’t want guns in those areas.”
The bill would not apply to protests outside government buildings, Sears said.
Baruth said increased political tensions and inflamed rhetoric over the past several years, and more recently, scenes of armed protesters entering statehouses and the U.S. Capitol and behaving in “an intimidating and sometimes threatening manner,” prompted him to file the bill.
“If I’m in a waiting area at the airport waiting to get on plane I don’t want to see someone with a gun and worry about something happening with that gun,” Baruth said. “We have agreed as a society” to ban guns from airports, he said, and he believes it’s common sense to add government buildings, hospitals and child care facilities to that list.
The state banned guns from schools in 1989 and from courthouses in 1993.
Questions raised by committee members including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, focused on the language, which proposes bans from government and hospital buildings and child care center grounds.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said that slight but important difference might “cause me problems” in supporting the bill, because it could further impact the number of child care facilities operating in the Northeast Kingdom. In a region of the state where many people keep guns on a rack in their truck, making possession in a child care parking lot could close child care businesses in a region that has already lost many, he said.
“We’ve got to walk through this carefully if we’re going to reach a consensus,” Benning said. “Unless this is tailored to the building itself or the playground, leaving it vague so anyone coming into the parking lot is automatically in violation is problematic.”
The bill would ban firearms from childcare facilities, including family day care homes, hospitals, and publicly owned buildings “currently in use for the performance of essential government functions.” State and federal law enforcement and military personnel would be exempted.
But during testimony, the state’s defender general, Matthew Valerio, and Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, asked whether existing laws — notably, 13 VSA 4003, a statue which makes possession of a dangerous or deadly weapon with the intent to injure a crime punishable by two years in prison or a $2,000 fine — could be applied in place of passing a new law. Bradley cited several additional assault statutes that could be applied as well.
“What I would say is there are other laws on the books that speak to things people might do with a gun,” Bradley said.
Bradley also said the proposed law would not be effective unless there were officers on hand to enforce it. He said the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs had not “hit the panic button” to mobilize its 60 member clubs and 11,000 members in voicing opposition, and trusted that the Senate would deliberate carefully on the bill.
“I think we have to realize S.30 will only really be complied with by honest law-abiding citizens,” he said.
“In my view, it’s not the carrying of the firearm (that is the problem); it’s the intent and desire of the person carrying the firearm that’s the problem,” Valerio said. He added that the state law banning possession with intent to injure “seems to hit that mail on the head.”
Elected officials including Attorney General T.J. Donovan, Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer, Treasurer Beth Pearce and Secretary of State James Condos testified in favor of the bill, relating concerns about employee safety in and around state offices and recent threats.
The 2015 murder of Lara Sobel, a Department of Children and Families social worker, at the hands of a parent upset by her involvement in a child custody case, was pointed to repeatedly. And Condos discussed threats his office received before and after the 2020 presidential election, which he said are still under investigation by state and federal law enforcement. Condos, Donovan, Hoffer and Pearce all said they supported the bill.
White said though the state is looking closely at providing safety and security for employees, the bill in question is specific to possession of firearms inside government buildings — though safety is part of the conversation, she said. “I want to make clear our discussions are not just about state employees,” she said.
White and other witnesses questioned the language stipulating “state-owned” buildings, noting that many state offices are leased rather than owned by the state.
And though legislative counsel Erik FitzPatrick said the bill was written to apply to town government buildings rather than every town-owned maintenance building and salt shed, White read the bill the include some of those buildings. “When I read this I include the town garage,” she said. “Plowing of the roads in Putney is an essential government function ... I think the definition needs to be a little bit clearer.”