Hundreds of residents in Vermont are expected to pack the state House chamber for a public hearing Tuesday night over proposed legislation that would expand background checks to include private gun sales, step up reporting about people deemed psychologically unfit to have a weapon and add state jurisdiction to what is now just federal enforcement of the ban on convicted felons possessing guns.
Senate Bill 31 has drawn strong opposition from powerful gun-rights groups and from Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Considered to be one of the most progressive states in the country, Vermont is also deemed to be one of the most passionate about defending the right to bear arms.
Shumlin, a lifelong hunter, attributes that passion to "years and years of Vermonters respecting guns as a tool to manage wildlife and to put food on the table."
"That's what motivates us to own a gun. It's not necessarily what motivates someone who lives in Manhattan to own a gun," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. Whether people grew up in a hunting family as he did "really influences how you look at this," the governor added.
But hunters have nothing to worry about, according to Ann Braden of Brattleboro, president of the group Gun Sense Vermont, a gun control advocacy group that supports the measure.
"This legislation doesn't affect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. It's focused exclusively on keeping guns out of the hands of convicted abusers, violent felons and drug traffickers," Braden said.
But gun-rights groups are adamantly opposed to the measure.
"No more gun control bills," said Bill Moore of Vermont Traditions Coalition. "We don't need them in the safest state in the nation."
There's widespread concern among gun owners about background checks in general, said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.
"A lot of people in the gun-owning community see every step down the regulatory road eventually leads toward registration and confiscation," Hughes said.
The bill, sponsored by the top three Democrats in the Vermont Senate, has three main components. It would expand background checks to private sales, with an exemption for sales between family members. If one neighbor wants to sell a gun to another, they must approach a federally licensed firearms dealer, who would run an electronic background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Secondly, the measure would make it a violation of state law as well as federal law for convicted felons to possess firearms, giving state and local police new power to enforce the law.
Finally, the bill would require that anyone found by a court to have a mental disorder making him or her a danger to self or others, or who had been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, or who had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility to have that information forwarded to the federal background check database for exclusion from being allowed to buy a gun.
FBI figures showed Vermont was the safest state in the country in 2013, with 115 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That was less than a third the national rate of 368 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
"It's truly a solution looking for a problem," State Sen. John Rodgers, a Democrat who says the bill is unnecessary, told Vermont television state WPTZ NewsChannel 5.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press