Law allowing seizure of firearms from suspected abusers takes effect

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A new law went into effect at the start of this month that allows police to seize firearms from suspected domestic abusers at the scene of an arrest.

"These are times that an abuser or a perpetrator is going to feel the most threatened, and it may be the time they are most likely to use a weapon at their disposal," said Avaloy Lanning, executive director of NewStory Center, a domestic violence shelter in Rutland.

"It takes that weapon out of their hands immediately," she said of the new law.

Auburn Watersong, policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, called the new law another "tool in the tool box" for police to protect victims in domestic violence situations.

"Our hope is that it will lend itself toward reducing domestic violence by firearms," Watersong said. "It was really geared toward keeping victims and their family safe."

The legislation, H.422, passed the Legislature last session and was signed by Gov. Phil Scott in April as part of a series of historic reforms to the state's gun laws.

The measure, which became Act 92 with Scott's signature, has proved less controversial than another of piece of gun legislation, S.55, which included provisions to limit magazine sizes, ban devices that speed up a gun's rate of fire, expand background checks to private firearm sales and raise the age to purchase a firearm to 21, with some exceptions.

That law is facing legal challenges in two Vermont courts from gun rights groups.

Act 92, which took effect last week, allows a law enforcement officer to seize a firearm from a person an officer arrests or cites on a domestic assault charge, under the following conditions:

- The firearm is seized pursuant to a search warrant;

- The removal is necessary for the protection of the officer, the victim or family member of the victim, or the person arrested.

"It's a step forward in terms of providing safety to domestic violence victims," Vermont State Police Capt. Robert Cushing said of the new law.

"A lot of our homicides involve domestic violence situations," he added. "It broadens law enforcement's authority to remove firearms in these situations."

According to the 2017 Vermont Domestic Fatality Report, between 1994 and 2016 the total number of adult domestic violence related homicides was 137, and 58 percent of them involved a firearm.

Cushing said that officers still must use good judgement and conduct thorough investigations.

"They have to get control of the situations and control the scene," Cushing said of troopers, "but we're also telling them to have that open line of communication with the state's attorney so you can ask them questions as well."

He added that Vermont State Police has been working to make sure that storage space is available at stations to accommodate seized weapons.

"We think we'll be all set," he said, adding that it's difficult to predict exactly how much extra room will be needed.

If firearms are seized, under the new laws, at an arraignment on the next business day the gun must be returned to the person it was seized from unless:

- The firearm is or may be used in a pending criminal or civil proceeding;

- a judge orders that it be seized in connection with a relief from abuse order;

- the person is prohibited from possessing a firearm by law, such as being a convicted felon;

- or the court imposes a condition of release requiring the defendant not to possess a firearm.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said he believed police have seized firearms "incident to arrest," for some time, including as evidence in a case, or later through the process of setting release conditions for a defendant.

"We'll raise whatever issues come up in any individual case," he said of the new law.

Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault said while the law is significant, it doesn't create "radical" changes compared to many current practices.

"I think what it does is clean up and potentially standardize practices about how to go about this statewide," the prosecutor said.

"What's important with Act 92," he added, "is emphasizing the critical time period immediately after an alleged domestic violence incident, to promote safety, and likewise, ensuring there is a mechanism there to review those exigent removals (of firearms) when they occur."

An implementation committee, which included victim advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement, has put together an informational document for police agencies regarding the change in the law, answering questions about what officers are permitted to confiscate, officers' liability and more.

Rutland City Police Commander Matthew Prouty said officers at domestic violence scenes have seized firearms in the past when they are determined to be evidence. However, he said, it's not always clear at the scene if the firearm is evidence in a particular case.

"The initial scene isn't the only story, in fact, there is often more to the story," he said.

"Later on you may find out that over the course of conduct the weapon that was in the living room had been pointed at a victim 10 times over the past six months," Prouty added, "but it didn't happen to be part of that particular instance."

By allowing officers to seize the firearms from scenes for safety reasons, in addition to the evidentiary reasons, Prouty said the new law will hopefully save lives.

"We are definitely excited to see the law go into effect and are really grateful for the efforts of everybody involved to make sure the way we are implementing this law is fair and also keeps victims safe," said Cara Cookson, a lawyer and public policy director at the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services.

"We really do believe that firearms play a huge role not only in domestic violence homicide," she said, "but in the process of coercive control in domestic violence relationships."

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