Keith Flynn had only been Orleans County state’s attorney a few weeks when he got a phone call from the Newport police on the morning of February 12, 1999. Shots had been fired in the downtown Home Health Building. Flynn rushed over, and not just because it was his job to do so: His wife was working there at the time.
The shooting didn’t happen there, as it turned out. At 8:20 a.m., 34-year-old Abdallah Moez Chibani walked into the office building next door and demanded to see his estranged wife, Carole. Because her coworkers knew Carole had a permanent restraining order against her husband, they immediately called 911.
Chibani slammed the door, pulled a gun from his jacket, found his wife and put two bullets in her head. When a responding police officer came around the corner, he spotted the gun, then ducked for cover. A third shot rang out. Chibani had taken his own life.
Flynn knew both the victim and her assassin. The newly elected state’s attorney was due in court that very morning for Chibani’s sentencing; he had violated his probation on two prior domestic-abuse convictions. Under federal law, those convictions, as well as the restraining order, made him a “prohibited person,” ineligible to possess a gun.
But federal agencies often lack the resources to enforce low-level gun offenses, and no Vermont law prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms. Today, 14 years after Carole Chibani’s murder, Vermont has few safeguards in place to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous domestic abusers.
“I’m not the only prosecutor who could tell you stories like that,” says Flynn, now Vermont’s commissioner of public safety. “This is at the heart of protecting our victims of domestic violence. I think it’s an area where we can do better.”
Flynn’s introduction to his job as a prosecutor was chilling but apt. Of the 18 homicides that occurred statewide that year, 10 were related to domestic violence, a ratio typical for any given year. In fact, of Vermont’s 225 adult homicides between 1994 and 2012, 112 of them — or half — were domestic-violence-related. More often than not, the murder weapon was a gun.
Sweeping federal legislation enacted by Congress in 1994 banned assault weapons nationwide, but it also requires anyone convicted of domestic abuse or subject to a restraining order involving a domestic partner to surrender his or her firearms. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and some other states have systems in place for ensuring that such weapons get confiscated and stored properly. But in Vermont, many of those guns remain in the hands of prohibited persons, or merely get handed over to friends or relatives.
Why? In part because most police departments in Vermont have nowhere to store them.
Washington County Sheriff Sam Hill presides over a small police department typical of many throughout the state. His Montpelier office is a converted home that was once the private residence of the county sheriff. The “evidence room” is a locked closet with a gun rack in it.
“I’ve got room for maybe 10 or 15 firearms,” Hill says. “So if the first guy has 15 firearms, I don’t have room for anyone else’s.” How many prohibited weapons are out there in Vermont that could potentially be confiscated?
“Hundreds, maybe thousands,” the sheriff estimates.
Hill understands the urgency of getting firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. He serves on Vermont’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission, a panel created in 2002 by then-governor Howard Dean to review every homicide involving a domestic partner “with the goal of making policy recommendations to prevent future tragedies.”
Every year since 2009, the commission has recommended that the legislature set up a system to get guns out of the wrong hands — weapons that would be relinquished, stored, inventoried and eventually returned, sold or destroyed. The commission has also advised that family members and friends not be allowed to take custody of those weapons, because they often give them back to offenders during hunting season. To date, the legislature has not addressed any of the commission’s concerns.
Because Vermont law allows convicted felons to possess guns, police can’t arrest someone with a gun who’s not supposed to have one — even though they’re in violation of federal law. If police learn that a domestic abuser possesses a gun, all they can do is notify the federal authorities at the FBI or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and hope they investigate. Hill guesses there’s only “a handful” of federal agents in the whole state.
“Is it a concern of ours? Yes it is,” confirms Dave Campbell, an ATF special agent in Burlington, who would not disclose how many field agents are based in Vermont. Campbell says that ATF agents will always “reach out” if they discover that a prohibited person has a firearm, “but we’re all over the place. We deal with armed drug dealers, addicts that steal guns and trade them for drugs, gun store burglaries.” In short, ATF has seemingly more important things to do than confiscate someone’s deer rifle.
Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Hanson points out that state judges do have discretion to prohibit domestic abusers from owning firearms as a condition of their relief-from-abuse order. But, she says, some Vermont judges are reluctant to order local police to seize firearms because they know many police departments have no place to store them or lack the staff and resources to maintain them properly. Many Vermonters own guns that would be considered valuable family heirlooms; should they rust or otherwise get damaged, departments could be held liable, Hanson says.
“So you can’t just throw them in a box,” she says.
Nevertheless, Hanson says it’s critical to get guns away from domestic batterers, especially right after a restraining order is issued, when abusers are most likely to seek retribution.
“This isn’t gun control,” Hanson emphasizes. “This is homicide prevention.”
Evidently, though, gun control is how many lawmakers interpret it. Sarah Kenney, associate director of public policy at the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, has been lobbying legislators to adopt the fatality review commission’s recommendations for years. As Kenney has discovered in the last decade, most legislators are gun shy about signing on to any bill with the word “firearm” in it.
“It’s really hard to find people to champion these issues, and if you do find a champion, they’re usually out there on their own,” Kenney says. “There’s this political lore that you can’t pass firearms legislation in Vermont. That’s just the political reality.”
One such champion is Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex), who introduced two gun-control measures after last year’s tragedy in Newtown, Ct. One bill would have criminalized possession of guns by convicted felons; the other would have established a regional storage facility in Essex for confiscated weapons. Despite having a combined 16 cosponsors, neither bill received so much as a hearing following vocal protest from gun-rights groups.
That Vermont lacks a proper gun-storage facility isn’t due to an absence of funding. Several years ago, the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services put out a request for proposals to local police departments and sheriffs’ offices offering $50,000 in federal seed money to create a regional solution. Only one agency, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, applied — then later withdrew its application.
Kenney thinks Vermont should look to neighboring New Hampshire, a state with a similar gun culture, as a potential model. Despite relentless lobbying by the National Rifle Association, New Hampshire passed a state law several years ago that prevents prohibited persons from surrendering their guns to family members or friends. In the Granite State, a prohibited person can pay to have a federally licensed gun dealer store his or her weapon.
“I do think that the vast majority of people are very responsible with their firearms,” adds Kenney. “But there is a very small minority who are using their firearms to terrorize their family, and that’s the piece we need to address.”
But can anything get done at the state level, with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s stated position that gun violence requires a “50-state solution?”
Flynn believes so. He says he’s been working closely with Kenney and other crime-victims advocates on a solution that’s workable for Vermonters; he expects to have a proposal sometime this summer. While Flynn can’t say what it will look like, he says Shumlin “conceptually” supports the effort.
“This isn’t about adding new gun-control laws,” adds Flynn, in a refrain similar to one often heard from Second Amendment rights advocates. “This is about complying with existing laws that are already out there — and enforcing them.”
Of course, confiscating all guns from prohibited persons won’t necessarily prevent violent crimes. Ben Berwick of Lyndon was under a relief-from-abuse order in 2009 when he killed his estranged wife, Anna, at a St. Johnsbury mall. Berwick didn’t use a gun; he stabbed her to death with a knife.
“It’s cynical to say it, but there’s no silver bullet, even if we took away all the firearms,” says Hill. “They killed people before firearms, and they’ll kill people even if we take them away.”
Even so, in 2006, California’s San Mateo County, near San Francisco, set up a pilot project to get people subject to restraining orders to turn over their weapons, according to a March report in the New York Times. With a population greater than Vermont’s, the county hasn’t experienced a single firearm-related domestic homicide in three years.