Extreme risk protection orders are popping up frequently after lawmakers passed a slew of gun laws this year, but some gun rights advocates in Vermont say the orders could be abused.
A new gun law passed quietly under the radar this year, taking a back seat to the headline-grabbing S.55, which introduced controversial universal background checks, magazine limits and more.
Under Vermont’s new extreme protection order (EPO) law, people who exhibit behaviors considered to be violently risky for themselves or others can have their firearms taken away by a judge’s order.
The first such case was Jack Sawyer, the former Fair Haven Union High School student who threatened his peers earlier this year. The Sawyer incident occurred shortly after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting where 17 people died.
A more recent request for an extreme risk protection order involved a Harwood Union High School custodian, Dick Peck. He is accused of writing a threatening message on a bathroom mirror. According to reports, Peck had access to multiple firearms and, therefore, prosecutors argued that an order was necessary to protect those around him.
Once an order is granted, the person must hand over all firearms to police, a firearms dealer or someone approved by the court. He or she must wait until the order is lifted before getting the guns back, which can be up to six months, and then there can be a renewal for up to another six months.
According to the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, extreme risk protection orders have been requested 18 times, and almost all of them were granted.
Bill Moore, a firearms policy analyst for the Vermont Traditions Coalition, said gun rights lobbyists were aware of the bill as it made its way toward passage. In other states, such laws are sometimes called “red flag” laws.
“I’m not surprised,” Moore said of the 18 requests for EPOs made in such a short time. He said it allows a judge to mitigate “a situation where the threats are more verbal than action.” It also provides a period of relief until the court date where the threat can be reassessed.
Moore noted that based on statistics from states where EPOs have been around for a few years, roughly 60 percent of them are issued regarding a suicide threat, meaning it’s more about mental health than threats to others.
Moore said he and other gun-rights activists worked closely with state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, on the bill.
“He’s been a straight shooter with us,” Moore said.
He added that House lawmakers eventually muddied up the bill and gun rights supporters were largely indifferent to its passage, not necessarily for or against it.
Eddie Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, is not happy about the application of the law so far this year. He called it “a travesty of justice” that Peck had his weapons taken away.
“This supposed dangerous person didn’t do anything except write something on a mirror in the school,” he said. “It had nothing to do really with him being violent or anything else. And being a school employee, he’s been through background checks. He’s been through all kinds of other checks.”
The state of New York is taking the next step on determining extreme risk, There is in the general assembly consideration of a law that would require a social media background check to purchase a gun. Cutler said with the new supermajority in Vermont’s legislature, bills like the one in New York could soon come to Vermont.
“Gun Sense is gonna jump on the bandwagon if they haven’t already,” he said. “Realistically they keep saying we only want this [the 2018 gun laws], then they want something else. They have a billionaire [former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg] backing every dime they spend.
“I haven’t seen the bills for this year,” he said. “I’m terrified of what the legislators are gonna do.”
He said that Gun Owners of Vermont is suing Vermont regarding the universal background checks, the 21-year age limit to purchase, and the ban on bump stocks. The Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs is suing the state regarding a limit on magazine capacity.
On the new age limit, Cutler said the law puts 18- to 21-year-olds at a loss if they encounter wildlife such as bear or other dangerous animal.
“There is a very large chance in Vermont of being attacked by an animal,” he said.
Cutler also said the gun laws passed this year do not make schools any safer, and the only thing that would is having armed personnel inside the schools.
“We have firearms trainers, people who want to volunteer,” he said. “They are already teaching airline pilots self-defense. We would love to see something like that here.”