Democrats to push for universal background checks this legislative session


Democratic leaders have promised a renewed fight in the next legislative session for a key gun-control measure — background checks on all gun purchases.

Following the Orlando nightclub shootings in June, the Vermont Democratic Party vowed to fight harder for gun control measures and added the topic to its official party platform. Conor Casey, the party's executive director, said "I don't think it's an issue we can stay silent on any more."

Sue Minter, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said gun control is a top priority. And in early August, Democrats held a rally on the steps of the Statehouse to support her promise of action on universal background checks when the Legislature convenes in January.

Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, organized the rally and said he plans to introduce a bill on the first day of the next session aimed at mandating background checks for all purchases, including at gun shows and online.

Vermont has a strong hunting tradition and has among the least restrictive gun control laws in the nation.

All federally licensed gun dealers in Vermont must initiate background checks in transactions, though private sales have no such requirements. Licensed sellers conduct background checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

While Baruth acknowledged that more restrictive gun measures remain a tough political issue, he said his narrowly tailored background check bill has a chance of success.

He pointed to recent results from a Vermont Public Radio/Castleton Polling Institute survey that showed 89 percent of respondents supporting background checks for all gun sales, including private transactions.

"I'm not denying that there is a strong pro-gun consistency in the Legislature," Baruth said Thursday. "But I think the ground has shifted in that it has been revealed that there is a strong majority who support very moderate legislation on gun safety."

A broad expansion of background checks was part of a gun control bill in 2015, but the provision was stripped from the legislation. A watered down version of the bill was enacted that year.

While Democrats have said they will renew efforts to reform gun control laws in the wake of mass shootings and statistics that show an increase in gun-related domestic violence, Republicans show no interest in changing current statutes. Baruth and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, have been debating background checks this summer in their weekly lunch gatherings, and Benning said he doesn't think Democrats should expect an easy road to passage.

The minority leader said budget reform is his top priority next legislative session, and he bemoaned Democratic efforts over recent years to address what he called "boutique issues" that can stall work on more rudimentary issues of government.

Speaking to VTDigger before Phil Scott's victory speech on primary night, Benning said that he saw no path to passage for Baruth's proposal, even if it meant a Democratic concession on a Republican issue, like budget reform.

"[Gun control] is not a bargaining chip for me," Benning said. "That is not an issue that our party supports. I don't know how far the Democrats want to push it."

Like Benning, Scott does not support expanding background checks for gun sales. The Republican gubernatorial nominee also does not support a ban on assault weapons. Minter has said she would sign an assault weapons ban bill, but would not push hard for it in the Legislature.

"I don't think we have an issue here," Scott told VTDigger in an editorial meeting in July after being asked about gun control.


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