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Vermont Senate Faulted for Withdrawing Assault Weapon Ban Bill

Norwich residents decided at a December meeting they would try to put a question on the ballot in Vermont towns asking voters if they support a ban on assault weapons. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

Norwich residents decided at a December meeting they would try to put a question on the ballot in Vermont towns asking voters if they support a ban on assault weapons. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan)

White River Junction — Gun control advocates in the Upper Valley are criticizing Democrats in the Vermont Senate for abruptly withdrawing a bill that would have banned the sale or manufacture of assault weapons before the legislation even had a chance to be discussed at a public hearing.

The bill, initially filed by Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Burlington, would have prohibited the manufacture, possession and transfer of semiautomatic assault weapons and large capacity ammunition, and made it a crime for a person to leave a firearm accessible to a child. But citing the lack of support in the Statehouse, Baruth pulled the bill last week, and lawmakers now say the focus should be on mental health and closing loopholes for gun purchases.

Former Norwich Selectwoman Sharon Racusin called the rationale lawmakers gave for withdrawing the bill a “copout” and said she was disappointed in them.

“There had to have been other legislators who supported it,” Racusin said. “He didn’t give it enough time. It’s really a tragedy that we can’t talk about it.”

Others also involved in a Norwich-based group to get an assault weapons ban on Town Meeting ballots said the issue remains front and center, despite the retreat by the Vermont Senate.

“The outrage is not going away,” said Bob Williamson, of South Woodstock.

Laurie Levin, the founder of the Norwich-based group formed after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was encouraged when she saw the Senate bring such a bill to the table earlier this month.

“Having the bill withdrawn, it feels that it’s ending the conversation on that particular bill,” Levin said. “But yet, I don’t think the conversation has ended at all because there are all of us that will keep the conversation going.”

The Town Meeting article calls for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchasers and says gun trafficking should be a federal crime. The article will be on Town Meeting ballots in Hartland, Norwich, Strafford, Thetford and Woodstock, and possibly other towns across the state.

And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month signed into law a tougher assault weapon ban, restrictions on ammunition and the sale of guns and a mandatory police registry of assault weapons, after it sailed through the Legislature in Albany.

Williamson has been involved in advocating for tighter gun regulations for the past 25 years. In 1988, his second grade and kindergartner daughters were at school in a suburb of Chicago when a shooter came into the school. Both his daughters were unharmed, but one student was killed and five others were injured.

He said he understands the politics in Vermont, which has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, and he wasn’t surprised that the bill was withdrawn, but he said it’s important that states make their own laws because often federal law doesn’t go far enough or there aren’t the resources at the federal level to prosecute every case.

“I’m pragmatic and I’ve been at this long enough that I know it’s going to be a long haul,” Williamson said.

It might be easier for Vermont to start off by banning high capacity ammunition clips as a first step and see where the conversation leads, Williamson said.

Caledonia state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Lyndon, had lunch with Baruth a few days before he pulled the bill, and told him he wouldn’t support the assault weapons ban. Baruth then shared with him that he couldn’t find anyone in the Democratic caucus who would support his bill, either.

“When he recognized there was no support for his bill, he decided to withdraw it so not to cause any conflict or discussion,” said Benning, whose district includes several Orange County towns in the Bradford area.

Numerous Democrats interviewed said they wouldn’t have supported the bill if it had gone forward, many citing the rural nature of Vermont life.

Benning said he has received hundreds of emails from constituents and every email was opposing the bill, which Benning said he found shocking.

State Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, said that in 23 years, he has never supported gun control in Vermont, and it’s because Vermont is a rural area and firearms are part of rural life.

State Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, said she wouldn’t have supported the bill because assault weapons are not the only way that people can harm or kill others. Take Melissa Jenkins for example. The St. Johnsbury Academy teacher was strangled to death last year and her death did not involve a firearm.

“I wish we could legislate (against) evil,” said Kitchel, a Caledonia senator also representing the Bradford-area towns.

And while Kitchel understands that there are a lot of gun owners in Vermont and gun laws are relaxed, she said there is no correlation between the number of gun owners in Vermont and gun violence.

But Benning said the issue is not over; it just needs to be tackled from a different angle. There is a bill that is working its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee that would target strengthening the reporting of mental illnesses into a national database.

The bill would call for anyone who has been found not guilty by reason of insanity or someone ordered to be committed to a mental institute to be added to the national crime database so that if they apply for gun ownership, they’ll be denied, Benning said.

“It’s not the gun you’re talking about, it’s the mental brain behind the trigger that you have to get some help for to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again,” Benning said.

He added that people are killed in large cities everyday by hand guns, not assault weapons, and by having a knee jerk reaction to a very specific type of gun wouldn’t get at the root of the problem.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, said he too wouldn’t have supported Baruth’s bill because he said he doesn’t want the Senate to have a reactive approach to what happened in Newtown, Conn.

Instead, he sided with Benning and said that the Senate should focus on the flaws in the system that allow people with mental illness to have access to guns.

While it’s hard to find common ground on gun control, one thing that people might be able to agree on is that background checks are needed. Orange state Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, said he too didn’t support the assault weapons ban, and he received many phone calls and emails from people on both sides of argument. But even those that opposed the bill said they would support increased regulation on background checks.

MacDonald added that he thinks tightening background checks is a positive step forward, but a bill as comprehensive as Baruth’s went further than Vermonters are prepared to go.

Racusin said Vermont’s role in “straw purchasing,” where guns purchased here are then resold surreptitiously in other states, is significant, and many crimes happen in neighboring states using guns bought in Vermont.

For Racusin, background checks should be the first priority, and she hopes that if the call for an assault weapon ban passes in several Upper Valley towns at Town Meeting, then it will give legislators the courage to talk about banning assault weapons.

“We want both local and federal legislators to know that we have their back and they shouldn’t be afraid,” Racusin said. “It’s time to really close this chapter on this ridiculous notion that we can’t talk about this and that the NRA is dictating how we run our lives.”

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