- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - In a story March 25 about Vermont legislation to impose new regulations on gun ownership, The Associated Press erroneously reported the party affiliation of Sen. Joe Benning of the Caledonia district. He is a Republican, not a Democrat.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Vermont Senate advances trimmed-down gun ownership bill

Vermont Senate advances bill to set gun ownership restrictions; critics see attack on culture

By DAVE GRAM

Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The state Senate took a key vote Wednesday to advance a bill that would set new restrictions on firearms ownership but that lacks what had been its most hotly debated provision - expanded background checks for gun buyers.

The bill won preliminary approval on a 20-8 roll call vote, with three of the majority Democrats joining five Republicans in opposition. It’s expected to win final Senate passage on Thursday before going to the House, also controlled by Democrats.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has been cool to the proposal, saying he likes Vermont’s gun laws as they are.

Vermont is frequently cited by gun rights advocates nationally as being the state friendliest to gun ownership - it has very few restrictions - and as ranking among the safest in the country in terms of low violent crime rates.

The bill doesn’t touch Vermont’s status as a state that allows people to carry concealed weapons without permits. And it had stripped from it a provision that would have required background checks for private gun sales other than those between immediate family members. Such checks are done in retail stores and at gun shows but not between private parties.

The vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Evan Hughes, was among those continuing to argue after Wednesday’s vote that the legislation isn’t needed, calling it “a solution in search of a problem.”

But Sen. Richard Sears, a Bennington Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said during a presentation to fellow senators that the panel heard from many people who answered yes to the question “Are there certain people who should not possess firearms in the state of Vermont?”

The bill addresses two classes of people: those convicted of felonies involving violence, crimes against children and serious drug offenses; and those who have been found by a court to suffer from a mental illness that makes them a threat to themselves or others and who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric care or have avoided criminal conviction by reason of insanity.

In the case of convicted felons, the bill would make Vermont join the other 49 states and the federal government in making it a crime for most felons to possess firearms. Vermont would make such post-conviction possession a misdemeanor.

Those found by a court to be mentally ill could petition for restoration of their gun rights 18 months after being deemed fit to leave the custody of the state Department of Mental Health.

The 18-month waiting period drew some debate, and a proposal by another Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, that the waiting period be removed in favor of a person being allowed to seek restoration of gun rights immediately after being found no longer mentally ill was defeated on a voice vote.

The bill drew impassioned debate at a public hearing in February, with hundreds of supporters wearing the green stickers and T-shirts of the GunSense Vermont gun safety group and a larger group of critics wearing hunter orange.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, said during Wednesday’s debate the bill started as “an attack on our heritage and our culture.”

“I, for one, was born here and brought up in a gun culture,” he said. “And I think others who move to Vermont because they like the culture are welcome. Others who have stated that they want to change our culture here may want to seek another place that has a culture they like.”

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