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Jim Kenyon: Finding Common Ground on Gun Rights

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Leah Stewart was working in the small office at the back of Locust Creek Outfitters in Bethel when I stopped by on Saturday morning. Her husband, Don, was waiting on a customer at the front counter.

I introduced myself to Stewart. “I’m not supposed to talk with anyone,” she said, politely. She then gave me the telephone number for her attorney.

Stewart is in the midst of a public firestorm at the moment — by her own volition. She is suing the state of Vermont over a ban on high-capacity gun magazines that Republican Gov. Phil Scott recently signed into law.

I explained to Stewart that I wasn’t anti-guns. I grew up deer hunting in Vermont and still contract a case of buck fever when the second Saturday in November approaches. But I also let her know that I don’t get why people think semi-automatic assault-style rifles have a place in our society.

Since Stewart was the only individual named among the five plaintiffs (the others are gun clubs or shops that sell firearms, including Locust Creek), I was interested in what she had to say about the debate over gun restrictions that has divided the state into two camps.

Anyone who is a party in a lawsuit that alleges Vermont’s new law violates the rights of gun owners must be a fire-breathing Second Amendment extremist, right?

We talked for nearly 45 minutes. The Second Amendment didn’t come up. Stewart also didn’t argue, as the lawsuit does, that the Vermont Constitution guarantees the right of people to “bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State.”

So why does Stewart oppose the new law?

Most of the couple’s customers are Vermonters, Stewart said. “This is our business,” she told me. “This is how we make a living.”

The limits on high-capacity magazines — 10 rounds for rifles and 15 for handguns — go into effect on Oct. 1. Many popular semi-automatic rifles come standard with 30-round magazines. For many handguns, the standard is 17 rounds.

“Because of Vermont’s new ban, however, Locust Creek is now forced to exit this segment of the market entirely, causing it to suffer significant financial loss,” the lawsuit states.

Brady Toensing, her Charlotte, Vt., attorney, told me by phone on Tuesday that the state’s sales tax already puts small gun shops in Vermont at a disadvantage. “This is another nail in the coffin for them,” he said.

Stewart and her husband have owned Locust Creek Outfitters, which has been around for 30 years, since 2013. It’s a mom-and-pop business open seven days a week.

A sign on the front of the shop, which is 2 miles outside of downtown Bethel where routes 107 and 12 meet, advertises “Guns, Fishing, Archery, Ammo.”

The inside of the one-story building is a taxidermist’s dream. A stuffed black bear, rearing from its hind legs, greets customers entering the front door. The heads of several eight-point bucks line the back wall.

Unlike a gun shop I visited recently in Claremont, Locust Creek didn’t have any Trump signs. It did, however, have the results of the shop’s 2017 “deer pool,” which last rifle season saw it check in about 80 bucks.

A good portion of the store, just across the road from the White River, is dedicated to fishing equipment. Stewart told me about an out-of-stater who had come in with his young son to buy fishing gear.

While his dad was shopping, the boy wandered over to a well-stocked gun rack behind a glass counter. The rifles and shotguns were out of the boy’s reach, but the man still wanted his son nowhere near them.

“Guns are bad,” he told the boy.

Stewart spoke up. “No, they’re not,” she said.

After a few minutes of healthy back-and-forth discussion about “guns being tools,” she handed the man some literature that she keeps around — compliments of the National Rifle Association.

Today’s NRA, which spends much of its time and money carrying water for the gun industry, doesn’t resemble the NRA that sponsored the hunter’s safety course that I took 50 or so years ago. But its Parents’ Guide to Gun Safety is still worth picking up.

Stewart, 35, has two sons. Her oldest, who is 14, is an avid turkey hunter who can’t wait for the upcoming youth weekend. Stewart isn’t a hunter, but she’s an instructor at NRA-sponsored clinics for women. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the NRA is bankrolling the lawsuit against the state.)

The lawsuit mentions that Stewart is the owner of an AR-15 who “wishes to acquire the prohibited magazines for purposes of home defense.” When I brought this up, Stewart cringed a bit. Stewart uses her AR-15 solely for target shooting, or “plinking,” as it’s called.

The longer we talked, the more common ground we found. We agreed that gun safety should be part of elementary schools’ curriculum. Kids need a better understanding of firearms than what they see in video games.

Where we differ: I think Vermont’s ban on high-capacity magazines is a worthy step toward curbing mass shootings in this country.

I also think it would be nice if the governor and lawmakers had a plan to help mom-and-pop shops, such as decades-old Locust Creek, stay in business.

The future of Vermont “deer pools” might depend on it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.