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Norwich Group Finalizes Draft Gun Article

Norwich — A group of residents has finalized a draft warning article calling for gun control measures that members hope to see debated on Town Meeting Day across Vermont.

Gun control has been a hot-button topic in the Upper Valley, as it has been nationally, since a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six teachers in Newtown, Conn.

Across the area, residents and officials have kick-started discussion groups to address the issue.

In Hanover, a separate group has organized a forum to discuss gun policy on Sunday with state legislatures.

At the same time, SAU 70 Superintendent Frank Bass is weighing an offer from the Hanover Police Department to equip schools with surplus bullet proof vests. Bass, however, noted that bullet-proof vests are not a high priority at this time for school personnel.

Norwich resident Laurie Levin organized a discussion group five days after the Newtown shooting in the basement of Norwich’s Tracy Hall. Within an hour, the group decided it wanted to place a warning on Town Meeting ballots that would demonstrate to state senators and representatives how Vermonters feel about gun control.

And if it passes?

“Then our next job would be to say to our legislature and our governor and our federal and state representatives, here is what your citizens have said. Here’s a mandate,” Levin said.

The warning article Levin’s group drafted calls for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchases. It also calls for making gun trafficking a federal crime, with stiff penalties for “straw” purchases — those buying guns on behalf of convicted criminals.

Levin knows it’s a lofty goal to try to get the warning article placed on every town meeting ballot statewide, and she’d be happy with at least 50.

Levin finalized the warning and petition yesterday and now she and other members of the group will begin making contacts in other towns to find people willing to take them up.

Residents from Norwich, Thetford, Hartland, Strafford and Windsor have shown interest in the project, and Levin said she expects people to start volunteering to gather signatures in their towns. Members of the group will also start to reach out to schools and churches in various towns to find volunteers for the petitions.

“They will have our petition so they won’t have to recreate the wheel,” Levin said. “We’re presenting them with a product that is ready to go.”

Levin and at least one other volunteer also plan to travel to Montpelier on Wednesday with their petitions and attempt to make contacts in various towns.

But Levin and the group of volunteers will have to move quickly. The deadline to get signatures to place a warning on a Town Meeting ballot is Jan. 24, and town’s must get 5 percent of the registered voters to sign the petition. In Norwich, 5 percent of registered voters is about 165 signatures. Once the necessary signatures are acquired, the Selectboard must give final approval.

A similar effort has started in Hanover, where Carla Bailey plans to bring together New Hampshire residents and legislatures to talk about gun policy.

Bailey is the senior pastor at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, where the event will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday. State Sen. David Pierce, D-Etna, and state Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, among others, have agreed to come to the forum, and Bailey wants it to be an opportunity for residents to ask questions of their legislatures.

Bailey said she wants to bring “sanity” to the gun control issue, and she plans to ask her legislatures what they need residents to do in order to bring about change. And while Levin’s group focuses on Vermont, Bailey hopes to offer an outlet that will focus on New Hampshire.

“Ultimately, I’m really troubled about feeling powerless in the face of that kind of violence and feeling powerless against the NRA and any other gun lobby,” Bailey said. “We’re going to start with this meeting and see where it goes.”

Dartmouth College students were invited, and Bailey plans to encourage people to split into groups if they have a topic in mind, such as concealed carry on campuses or safety measures in schools.

Many of these conversations are ongoing, including school safety. Bass, the SAU 70 superintendent, has been looking at school safety long before the Newtown shooting, and he’s now looking at whether lock-down drills should be more frequent.

The district has also received an offer from the Hanover Police Department to provide the school with its used Kevlar bullet proof vests. But while Bass said he’s considering the offer, he said the district isn’t ready to make any decisions.

“We’ll consider any that the police department has to make in consideration of our safety, but what we choose to do we have to sit down and think through,” Bass said. “We haven’t made up our mind.”

He added that bullet proof vests are not a high priority, and he’s more worried about securing the buildings to keep intruders out who might want to cause harm.

Bass said he plans present the school boards at the end of the month with more concrete ideas about how to use existing money in this year’s budget, and how to allocate money in next year’s budget, for safety.

Hanover Police Chief Nick Giaccone said the offer was made to the schools because every five years the vests are replaced as a result of wear. A new vest, which fits under clothing, costs more than $1,000.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.