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Towns Back Gun Control: Firearm Article Spurs Passionate Debates 

An eager volunteer rushed around Strafford’s Town House yesterday to hand a microphone to voters wishing to speak from their seats, but Curt Albee had no use for her. An hour into Town Meeting, Albee rose from his seat, walked to the standing microphone at the center of the room, and, with 200 neighbors staring at him, held aloft a picture of his 6-year-old grandson.

“We start by standing up and speaking out,” said Albee, his voice breaking as he compared the boy to the 20 children slain in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and urged other residents to support a call for increased restrictions on assault-style weapons.

“If all we accomplish by talking about this article is sending a message to our Legislature that we’ve had enough and we expect them to have some gumption and do something …” Albee said. “Think about your child and grandchild, what they look like, what they sound like, what they feel like. The ability to own one of these weapons — the sole purpose of which is to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible — is not as important as the life of that little boy.”

It was a message voters embraced, sometimes overwhelmingly, in seven Upper Valley towns as residents tried to push state and federal lawmakers — who have said Vermont isn’t ready for more gun control — to take action.

The resolutions, which called for an assault weapons ban, background checks for all gun buyers and criminal penalties for so called “straw purchasers,” passed in Strafford 132-47, Bradford 57-43, Woodstock 707-186, Norwich 898-132, Hartland and Thetford (which voted on Saturday) by voice vote. In Vershire, the article was tabled.

There were some voices of dissent.

“I would say for you to use your First Amendment rights to restrict my Second Amendment rights is no less egregious,” said Bradford resident Doug Randall, who opposed the article.

Even the most impassioned supporters of the article acknowledged little hope of changing minds in Montpelier, where Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislators have avoided serious debate on gun control this session: The most prominent bill died in a House committee, prompting one veteran lawmaker to call the inaction “disgraceful.” During the lunch break in Strafford, a resident waiting in line asked State Rep. Jim Masland how much impact the resolution would have in the Statehouse.

“Not much,” Masland, a Thetford Democrat wearily replied.

But Town Meeting voters refused to follow the example of their elected leaders, and engaged in an emotional debate about whether citizens’ access to guns needs more limits. The arguments were not novel, and the debate split along the familiar fault lines. But, if only for a couple hours, it seemed as if the gentle immediacy of Town Meeting, of neighbors talking to neighbors in places where they have congregated for decades, reanimated the discussion.

In a lengthy speech that prompted calls for him to hurry up, Mark Moran of Strafford talked of armed rebels in Syria and Egypt, and of power and wealth consolidating in ever fewer hands at home. It is only through firearms, Moran said, that Americans can guarantee their rights.

“These are necessary for the preservation of a free state,” Moran said. “I fear the arrogance and abuse of power growing in our nation’s capitol. That’s the only recourse you have, your ability to take a weapon and enforce your liberty should the nation come under stress.”

Back and forth the argument went, touching on the history of the Second Amendment and the effectiveness of current gun laws.

The Rev. Byron Breese, pastor of the United Church of Strafford and a former Air Force reservist, took the microphone, and said he had no use for NRA badges he won for marksmanship while a Boy Scout. Breese said he supported hunters’ rights, but could no longer abide an organization that has helped spread weapons of murder.

“I wouldn’t touch them now,” Breese said of those old badges.

In Hartland, where the article passed in a relatively close voice vote, nearly everyone who spoke owned a firearm.

Art Rosson, a Korean War veteran, said he agreed with the NRA’s oft-quoted line: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

But Michael Weinberger worried about the spread of well-armed bad guys.

“The concept of a community where massive numbers of gun owners (own semi-automatic weapons) scares me,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate for a civil society.”

In Bradford, voters shut down the debate after only six people spoke, then voted to approve the proposal.

Outside of Tracy Hall, a few Norwich residents held white signs that read “Article #36 Please Vote YES,” as voters filed into the polls.

In Vershire, voters returned from lunch to find two page fliers on every seat in the room from a group called Common Ground, encouraging people to approve the article. But debate soon fell apart: One voter questioned the legality of the flier, and another tried to amend the article to make a link between anti-depressants and violence, and before long, former Town Clerk Naomi LaBarr made a motion to scrap the whole debate. It was eagerly approved.

But in most towns, voters eagerly dove into the turbulent waters that lawmakers have avoided.

Valley News Staff Writers Sarah Brubeck, Diane Taylor, Jordan Cuddemi and Aimee Caruso contributed to this report. Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.

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