Vermont Senate Leader Pulls Assault Weapon Ban Bill

Montpelier — Senate majority leader Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Burlington, withdrew a bill seeking a ban on the sale or manufacture of assault weapons on Sunday, as first reported by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

In a statement, Baruth put his decision down to policy and political considerations, saying that a narrow assault weapons ban may overshadow other widely backed measures, like stricter background checks and that political support among lawmakers was lacking.

“As incoming Majority Leader, I owe it to my caucus to remove an issue that seems increasingly likely to complicate our shared agenda this biennium,” said Baruth in the statement.

Baruth declined to comment beyond the three paragraph statement. He wouldn’t say if other Democratic senators in the 23-member caucus had pressured him to pull the bill.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Quechee, both said that Baruth’s new role as majority leader likely left him in an uncomfortable position as the lead sponsor of such a hotly debated bill.

Majority leaders tend to shy away from being the name and face behind controversial legislation, unless it’s squarely backed by the caucus, said Campbell.

“I think that it showed on his part, him taking his job as a leader of the senate quite seriously,” said Sears. “Not talking about myself, some senators were uncomfortable with his introducing the bill…My feeling is he was torn between his personal belief on the bill and his role as majority leader.”

Sears is inclined to cancel a public hearing on gun control scheduled for early February, because it’s no longer associated with a specific bill, but said he’d speak with fellow senators today before making a decision. Campbell wants Sears to determine whether a public hearing is still suitable or whether a special taskforce should be convened to make recommendations this session on gun control.

Campbell said that to the best of his knowledge there was no pressure from the Democratic caucus, though certain members of the Senate don’t support an assault weapons ban, partly because they are part of a sportsmen’s caucus, among other reasons.

“Philip is not one to succumb to any type of pressures from anyone,” Campbell said.

Campbell said Baruth came to the decision on his own.

“If you’re in leadership, you don’t get to express your views all the time,” Campbell said. “You have to understand you’re the voice of your caucus, or as Pro Tem, the voice of the Senate. It’s a great position to hold, but it does cause there to be certain restrictions with your personal interaction with legislation … The role of majority leader somewhat precludes him from taking the lead on an issue of this magnitude.”

Campbell said he doesn’t know if any other senators will introduce gun control legislation.