Groups agree mental health reporting could improve in Vermont, but that's it

An analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation data by a gun control group claiming the federal background check system is working in Vermont – but needs improvement in mental health reporting – has some in the firearms industry in agreement.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the gun industry, fundamentally sides with gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety that firearms should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill, but that’s where the concession ends.

“The last thing that the firearms industry wants is to have the wrong people owning firearms,” Jake McGuigan, NSSF director of state affairs, told “If it matches up with what they’re saying, it’s fine, but they’re seeking universal background checks.”

McGuigan referred to Everytown’s attempt to close the so-called gun show loophole on personal transactions – such as those made at gun shows or online – which don’t require a background check. U.S. law requires that all sales made through a federally licensed dealer be checked against the the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.      

Vermont’s system is flawed and Everytown is looking at an incomplete picture, which leads to background checks you can’t trust, McGuigan said.

Largely left out of the reporting are mental health records, like those for individuals who were involuntarily committed or pled guilty to a crime by way of insanity, McGuigan said.

After several emails and calls to Vermont’s Crime Information Center, the state’s repository for criminal record information systems, could not reach anyone for comment.   

Everytown admits there are gaps in states submitting their mental health records and it aims to close them.

“The numbers reflect a troubling reality – since 2002 the share of total background checks in Vermont that were denied fell by nearly half. This suggests criminals and other prohibited purchasers may be flocking to unlicensed gun sellers online, where they know criminal background checks are not required,” a spokesperson for Everytown said.

The group’s analysis claims that more than 3,000 guns sales were blocked in Vermont since 1998, including 279 sales to drug offenders, 356 to individuals convicted of domestic violence and 983 to convicted felons.

In response to growing concerns of Vermonters about a perceived increase in drug-related crime, legislation was recently proposed that would seek to keep guns out of the wrong hands without background checks, The Burlington Free Press reported.

Washington County Sheriff W. Samuel Hill, first vice president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, said he hasn’t read the entire bill, but thinks it could be good for Vermont.   

“In general, they’re looking to put legislation in place where if you were court committed, that info would be forwarded to the federal system,” Hill said.

The other part of the bill would close the gun show loophole, which Hill fears could include sweeping background check provisions.

“Many of us are waiting for more information,” Hill said.

Hill said he wouldn’t support a bill that required background checks on all transfers, including those from deceased relatives. He said there are also people worried about the possibility of a gun registry and what it would cost to maintain.

Government keeping track of who owns a gun in and of itself is a widespread fear held in the gun rights community, but the cost of maintaining one is also a consideration. The federally-licensed dealers aren’t going to bare the cost, so it would likely be passed on to the consumer or to taxpayers.

“Is that the beginning of a gun registry, because the ATF can now come in and see those records?” Hill said.

As far as a correlation between a decrease in background check denials and criminals getting their hands on guns, Hill couldn’t say.

“There’s definitely drug-related violence involving firearms,” Hill said. “That’s been an issue locally. As far as the loophole, I don’t know. Some of the people are coming from out of state and bringing the guns with them.”

For those instances, it’s hard to pinpoint if the firearms were bought in state or whether the criminals bought the guns elsewhere and brought along, he said.

Vermont’s proposed legislation would also improve the state’s reporting of mental health records to the federal government.

“I don’t have any problem with the legislation revolving around the mental health issue … with the caveat that if they get better, they can petition to be removed from the list.

At the beginning of each legislative session, the state’s sheriffs and police chiefs meet with the legislature at a luncheon where various topics are discussed. Hill said that law enforcement brought up the issue of mental health and guns several years ago.

“So, the sheriffs are pretty on board with this legislation.”

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