Vermont Senate deal on guns in abuse cases in doubt

Apr. 2, 2014
Written by, DAVE GRAM, Associated Press
MONTPELIER — A measure to address longstanding concerns that police in Vermont lack space to store guns being held in domestic abuse cases appeared in jeopardy Wednesday as a Senate committee discussed whether the underlying practice is constitutional.

The matter of gun owners’ versus abuse victims’ rights centers on the ability of family court judges to order someone to hand over weapons if they are subject of a relief from abuse order, which does not carry with it the weight of a criminal conviction.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voiced strong objections, saying for authorities to confiscate guns without a criminal court process violates the U.S. Constitution.

Defendants would be “deprived of their property and they are told they have to pay to get it back, without ever having had a day in court,” Benning said. “I don’t own a gun, but I do care about the Constitution, and when you bypass that, I find that offensive.”

The new objections called into question the apparent agreement between Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration, domestic violence groups and the sportsmen’s groups that would set up a new fee system to give police the capacity to store weapons.

“I don’t know where it’s going,” Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the committee.

But after hearing testimony, especially from gun rights advocates, Sears said it was clear to him that language in a version of the bill that passed the House does not have full agreement.

Vermont family courts that issue relief-from-abuse orders in cases of alleged domestic abuse can do so without the defendant being criminally charged.
Frequently a court will order the alleged abuser to surrender any firearms he or she may own, in a bid to keep a volatile and abusive situation from turning deadly. Those weapons are handed over to police or a third party.

“National research in recent years has shown alarming parallels between access to firearms and lethality in domestic violence cases,” said Sarah Kenney, associate director of public policy with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
In Vermont, 56 percent of domestic homicides during the past 18 years were committed with firearms, Kenney said.

Kenney added that the first time a victim seeks a temporary relief from abuse order often triggers the most dangerous time in a relationship, because it is often the first sign to the abuser that the victim may be trying to end it.

“In a study of 230 women killed by their intimate partners, 20 percent of the women who had an active restraining order were killed within two days of receiving it,” she told the committee.

But when a court order results in firearms being turned over to police or sheriffs’ departments, the agencies say, they are left with the challenge of finding secure storage for them, a challenge several law enforcement agencies have said they are not prepared to meet.

A section of a bill on executive branch fees passed by the House would set up a fee schedule of $4 per day per firearm for storage, plus $25 for initial storage and later retrieval, with a maximum yearly cap paid by anyone of $2,000. That cap would otherwise be exceeded if, for example, authorities held two guns for a year. The money would be used to fund storage facilities.

Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his group originally supported more and better firearms storage “in concept.” But he said its view had changed in light of what he called too-steep fees and because of the constitutional issues.