A sign at Howard and St. Paul streets in Burlington urges voters to support ballot items intended to increase gun safety. / JOEL BANNER BAIRD/Free Press
Written by Aki Soga, Free Press Ediorial Page Editor
Domestic abuse is a critical problem made even worse by the presence of guns and other weapons that leads to serious injury or death.
Yet the Burlington solution — a Charter change that would allow weapons to be seized in suspected domestic abuse cases — leaves uncomfortable questions about the scope of powers being granted to the police.
A “typo” in the proposed Charter change only adds to the image of an effort high on emotion but short on attention to detail.
The Charter change grants the authority to seize property on the spot whenever “a police officer has probable cause to believe that a person has been the victim of domestic abuse.”
The change on the Town Meeting Day ballot is overly broad and allows confiscation without requiring formal charges or proof that the weapons present an imminent threat to persons.
Where is the due process?
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, and calls for the authorities to obtain a warrant “describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The city should do everything possible to reduce domestic violence, but sacrificing our basic constitutional rights is no remedy.
Core of the Charter change, one of three relating to gun regulation on the Town Meeting Day ballot, reads: “Whenever, within the City of Burlington, a police office has probable cause to believe that a person has been the victim of domestic abuse, ... the office may confiscate any firearm, ammunition, or deadly or dangerous weapon, as defined in 13 V.S.A. SS4601, in the immediate control or possession of the person alleged to be the abuser.”
City Attorney Eileen Blackwood says the reference to sub-section 4601 is a mistake and the definition for “deadly or dangerous weapon” can be found under 4016. Blackwood said in an email the mistake was “just a typo” that will be corrected and should have no affect on the validity of the ballot item.
Secretary of State Jim Condos says the deadline for producing Town Meeting Day ballots has passed, meaning no correction can appear on the ballot.
The state statute in question defines “dangerous or deadly weapon” as “any firearm, or other weapon, device, instrument, material or substance, whether animate or inanimate, which in the manner it is used or is intended to be used is known to be capable of producing death or serious bodily injury.”
The definition arguably could cover everything from guns and kitchen knives to baseball bats and vicious dogs.
The other question is how broadly “possession” might be defined — on the person, in the room, or locked in the trunk of the car in the garage?
The unanswered questions, as well as the typo, say the Charter change is an unfinished document. As presented to voters, the gun seizure ordinance represents the wrong approach to battling domestic violence.