A MATTER OF CONTROL: Gun Sense Vermont claims 81 percent of likely voters support making all gun buyers undergo a background check.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
In their quest to expand background checks for gun owners nationwide, gun-control advocates have resorted to targeting the mentally ill in states.
Each year, dozens of states track mentally ill citizens and report them to a federal database of criminals who are prohibited from buying guns.
Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun-control group that seeks universal background checks, keeps a running tally of those states, hoping to shame ones that don’t snitch on citizens receiving treatment for mental illness.
According to the group’s Closing the Gaps report, Vermont ranks among the “worst performing states” for its unwillingness to place Vermonters with mental health challenges in the FBI-run National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The NICS was launched in 1998 to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Along with New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and a handful of other states, Vermont has refused to stigmatize the mentally ill or deny them their constitutional rights. According to Everytown, these “worst performers” have reported fewer than 100 people to the NICS. While the number of mental patients reported to NICS nationally stands at 3.7 million — up from 1.1 million in 2011 — Vermont has informed on just 23 people with mental illness.
Reporting Vermont’s mentally ill to an FBI criminal database — an idea promoted locally by Gun Sense Vermont — has qualified support from police chiefs of the state’s two largest cities.
“We haven’t come up with a particular policy position on it,” Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling told Vermont Watchdog about the expansion of background checks in Vermont.
According to Schirling, police in Vermont are not presently involved in the background check process at either the federal or local level. However, he said failure to report mental illness could be viewed as a gap in the national database system.
“The state does not currently report folks that have an adjudicated mental health issue to the federal system. I think that’s a safety hole in the system. We should be reporting those,” he said.
Outgoing Rutland Police Chief Jim Baker said including mentally ill in background checks sounds sensible, but may be impractical or even unnecessary.
FEW GUN CRIMES: Rutland City Police Chief James Baker said few crimes are committed with firearms in Rutland, Vermont’s second largest city.
“We have no way locally to get access to know if somebody is under treatment for mental health issues,” Baker told Vermont Watchdog. “There’s no sense in passing legislation to do a background check when you don’t have a database to check the background of the individual.”
Baker called mental health “one piece that needs to be addressed,” but he called passing a law to expand background checks in Vermont “a feel-good thing” apart from the creation of a mental health database.
Asked if gun crime in Vermont was a problem that needed to be addressed with state background checks, Baker replied, “We don’t see a lot of issues here with firearms — very few of our crimes are committed with firearms.”
Since reporting the mentally ill to the FBI is optional, states must pass legislation to do so. State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, proposed a reporting bill in 2014, but it died in committee.
State Sen. Jeanette White illustrates that background checks are tricky policy in Vermont, even for Democrats who support them. While the Windham Democrat supports Gun Sense Vermont’s push for expanding background checks, White said she’s uncomfortable with targeting people with mental issues.
“I have concerns about putting people with mental health issues on a no-owner list. I know sometimes people have desperate mental health issues and come out of them, and it’s almost impossible to get off the federal list once you’re on. I have concerns about that,” White said.
“I’m not going to blanket say everybody who has had a mental health issue where they threatened to harm themselves or others would automatically be denied the right to have a firearm. I’m not there.”
Gun control proponents argue that background checks are a winning issue. Gun Sense Vermont claims 81 percent of likely voters support making all gun buyers undergo a background check. Washington’s Initiative 594, which requires pre-purchase checks for all firearms sales and transfers — including guns sold at gun shows and on the Internet — passed with 59 percent of the vote Nov. 4.
Eddie Garcia, founder of Vermont Citizens Defense League, said background checks don’t need expanding in Vermont.
“Background checks already exist. If I go to a dealer tomorrow and buy a gun, I have to go through a background check through the federal NICS system. What Gun Sense wants is to make a law that says if I buy a gun from the person across the street who I’ve known for 20 years, we both have to take that gun to a dealer and have a federal background check run, and if we don’t we’re criminals,” Garcia said.
According to Garcia, police should oppose gun control laws that contradict Second Amendment gun rights.
“In the state of New York, there are five or six sheriffs who are saying they will not enforce Cuomo’s Safe Act. We’ve seen sheriffs nationwide, when gun control pops up, saying they’re going to side with their people, and they’re not going to enforce the provisions of these new gun controls. I can hope Vermont sheriffs will do as much,” he said.
When asked how local sheriffs might respond to universal background check legislation backed by Gun Sense, Garcia said individual sheriffs would likely reflect the views of voters who elected them.
“I haven’t heard too many sheriffs lately say what they’ll do about what Gun Sense wants, but I think you could read the tea leaves. The sheriff of Chittenden County will probably get on board with them, whereas the sheriff of Caledonia County would be expected not to,” he said.
As for police chiefs, Garcia said some might have to choose between following the Constitution and following the views of the mayors who appoint them.
“As far as police chiefs, the police chief in Barre City has broken away from the mayor, who is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He’s not supporting it.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org