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Statement by the Right Reverend Thomas Ely, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Vermont


RE: Senate Resolution S.31 – An act relating to possession and transfer of firearms

Date: January 27, 2015

I am writing today to express my support for S.31, the bill currently before the Vermont legislature, that would require criminal background checks on unlicensed sales of firearms, prohibit violent felons from possessing guns, and require timely submission of relevant court records to the National Instant Background Check System when a person has been adjudicated as being a danger to themselves or others. I appreciate the thoughtful and sensible legislation introduced by Senators Campbell, Baruth and Ayers.

As Bishop of Vermont and as a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a group of over 60 bishops of The Episcopal Church serving across the United States, I am committed to reducing the alarming levels of gun violence in our society and advocating policies and legislation that save lives. I believe we have a moral obligation as faith leaders to work together with legislators to alleviate suffering in our world by establishing policies that make our communities safer places.

Under current federal law, background checks are required for gun purchases at licensed dealers. However, 40% of gun transfers take place between “private” parties (often at a gun show or through online transactions), and are not subject to this federal background check.1 A recent undercover sting operation conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety found that “an estimated 121 firearms are being transferred annually to legally unauthorized persons in Vermont through unchecked internet sales.”2 Attempted buyers uncovered in the sting included those with a history of violence, domestic abuse and drug trafficking.

Sixteen states and Washington, DC, go beyond federal law by requiring background checks for private handgun sales. In these states that require such background checks, there have been significant reductions in the rates of women shot to death by their partners, firearm suicides, aggravated assaults with firearms, police killed with handguns, and crime guns trafficked to other states.3

The issue of handguns trafficked to other states is of particular concern here in Vermont. While we are fortunate in this state not to suffer levels of gun violence seen in other areas of the county, we are seeing an alarming and increasing pattern of drugs from Massachusetts being traded for guns in Vermont. As reported in the Boston Globe, some of these guns have been recovered at crime scenes – firearms originating from our communities used in acts of violence that affect our neighbors. “The market has an express lane, Interstate 91, which authorities call the Iron Pipeline because it gives Massachusetts drug dealers easy access to Vermont, a state awash in firearms with some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation.”4 Reducing criminal access to firearms would therefore address issues of gun violence as well as the opiate epidemic we continue to battle in this state.

81% of Vermonters (including 77% of gun owners in Vermont) support requiring a criminal background check for every gun sale.5 This legislation is not about abridging our Second Amendment rights, or our right to hunt and pursue sportsmanship as well as protect ourselves.  There are more than 300 licensed gun dealers in the state (almost all within 10 miles of every Vermont resident),6 and private sellers will be able to carry out sales with no additional cost or inconvenience.

Earlier this month, more than 100 supporters of a bill that would require criminal background checks for the purchase of firearms gathered at the State House to make their voices heard. In addition to this, 1,400 letters and 12,000 petition signatures in support of such legislation were delivered to political leaders. My own statement was read by the Rev. Susan Ohlidal.

In The United States, guns kill more than 30,000 per year, by far the highest rate of gun deaths in the industrialized world.7 As Christians, we are called to give voice to the innocent and to cry out for action, justice, and peace. I invite you to join me in efforts to work toward safety and peace in our communities.

Full Signature

Download a PDF of the statement

1 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (via Mayors Against Illegal Guns):
2 Burlington Free Press “VT Sting: Prohibited persons buying guns online”

CORRECTION A previous version of the report this Burlington Free Press article refers to incorrectly stated that Everytown identified 1,106 ads posted by unlicensed Vermont sellers offering firearms for sale. Those conducting the survey inadvertently included 48 ads posted by licensed dealers in Vermont in this total. This version of the report reflects data based on the updated total of 1,058 gun ads posted by unlicensed sellers, which yields an estimate of 2,926 unlicensed gun sales annually on just three websites in Vermont, including 121 gun sales to felons and domestic abusers.”

3 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (via Mayors Against Illegal Guns):
5 Lincoln Park Strategies Poll, April 26, 2014
6 Rutland Herald: “Independent investigation finds prohibited persons buying guns in Vermont online”

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