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Editorial: Silence in Montpelier

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now time to award the coveted 2013 Profiles in Courage medal. The envelope, please. Drumroll. The winner is ... uh, well, let’s just say it’s not the Vermont Senate, which has declined to even debate an assault weapons ban during the current session.

This unseemly bit of moral retreat first surfaced with word that Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Burlington, was withdrawing a bill seeking a ban on the sale or manufacture of assault weapons. Baruth is the Senate’s new majority leader, and his decision was initially explained primarily in the context of that leadership role.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, explained to VTDigger.org that majority leaders tend to shy away from being the name and face behind controversial legislation. “If you’re in leadership, you don’t get to express your views all the time,” said Campbell. “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 ...”

Upon further review by Valley News staff writer Sarah Brubeck, it now appears that this explanation was not entirely candid. A more accurate description is that the bill had close to zero support in a body in which Democrats and Progressives outnumber Republicans, 23 to 7.

Most of the senators interviewed by Brubeck took one of two positions: The proposed assault weapons ban would distract the Senate from less controversial and possibly more effective gun control legislation, such as an improved system of background checks; or that Vermont is a rural state and firearms are a traditional part of rural life.

Both these arguments are beside the point. What elected representatives are called upon to do after the slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Conn., last December is decide whether a ban on a particular type of lethal weapon is appropriate and wise. This has nothing to do with rural traditions such as hunting, or if it does, the circumstances are mysterious to us. (A rampaging herd of deer that needs to be taken down quickly?) Nor does considering a ban preclude fully exploring other gun control measures.

It may well be that senators could conclude at the end of the day that an assault-weapons ban would be ineffective; or that the issue is one best left to Congress, not state lawmakers; or that it would unfairly penalize law-abiding gun owners in the attempt to address what is really a mental health issue.

Nonetheless, the issue deserves a public airing. Legislative hearings on issues educate not only legislators, but the public as well. Moreover, the public deserves to know where their senators stand on such a controversial issue.

As to the leadership avoiding controversy, we seem to remember a fellow named Shumlin, who brushed aside arguments for delay and led the charge to enact gay marriage in 2009 while he was president pro tempore of the Senate. Seemed to work out OK for him and the state.