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Gun Control In Vermont: Not This Year

Friday, March 15, 2013
As Vermont lawmakers today mark the unofficial halfway point in the legislative session, advocates have all but given up hope that any gun control bills — even one that a state senator dubbed the “least ambitious” gun law that could be proposed — will be enacted this year.

The lack of action comes despite recent developments that would seemingly bolster the case for gun control:

■ A recent poll from Castleton State College showed that 61 percent of Vermonters favored banning the sale of assault weapons, 66 percent favored banning high capacity ammunition clips, and 75 percent supported closing the so-called gun show loophole.

■ A Town Meeting resolution urging lawmakers to pursue gun control passed — by sometimes overwhelming margins — in 6 of the 7 towns where it was proposed.

■ Even the United States Senate, maligned as a bastion of dysfunction, has taken action: The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday passed an assault weapons ban that would forbid sale of firearms and limit clips of high capacity ammunition to 10 rounds.

But in Vermont, lawmakers have failed not only to pass any gun laws or even take a vote, but also have failed to advance any gun bill for a committee hearing.

“The minute you walk into the Statehouse, it’s almost a forbidden topic,” said State Rep. Linda Waite Simson, D-Essex, a veteran gun control advocate. “That’s the way it’s always been. It’s very discouraging to see that. I was in a small meeting where a representative said, ‘Please don’t make me vote on guns, it’s worse than civil unions.’ That’s how a lot of representatives are feeling — vulnerable.”

Next Year, Maybe

Today is Crossover Day in the Statehouse, when non-spending bills must be voted out of one chamber and sent to another to have a chance of being enacted this year. But lawmakers and advocates say no gun control bill will come up for a vote until the next session, at the earliest.

State Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, entered a bill earlier in the session that would make it a crime for failing to safely secure firearms inside homes with children. That bill hasn’t received a hearing, and none is scheduled. In a recent interview, McCormack could not even recall which committee had jurisdiction over his bill.

“It’s admittedly the least ambitious of all gun related bills, and it’s not getting a lot of action,” McCormack said. “There has not been much interest in my bill.”

But McCormack said that he understood lawmakers’ reluctance. Before a few years ago, McCormack, generally one of the more liberal members of the legislature, said that he told voters during his re-election campaigns that he would not pursue any gun control laws. For much of his political life, McCormack said he did not believes that guns were a serious problem in Vermont, and that pursuing any legislation would stir large opposition in hopes of solving a relatively small problem. Over time, as the U.S. has seen more mass killings and as Vermont guns have been blamed for shootings in other locations, McCormack said he evolved to support some gun control measures.

“My position was based mainly on the idea that we’re a very safe state and so there wasn’t a problem in need of fixing,” McCormack said. “There wasn’t a need so great to justify a fight. I’m not afraid of a fight, but I’m not a masochist. I’m not going to invite public hostility for the fun of it. (But) we are only one lunatic away from that argument blowing up in my face, and I don’t think I could live with myself. We’re becoming the arsenal of the thugs of New England and New York. I think we have to take some responsibility for that. ”

On Town Meeting day, voters in six Upper Valley towns — Strafford, Bradford, Woodstock, Norwich, Hartland, and Thetford — approved resolutions urging lawmakers to enact gun control laws, including mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, a ban on assault weapons, and enhanced penalties for so-called “straw purchasers.”

State Rep. Jim Masland and Margaret Cheney, Democrats who represent Norwich, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford, said that while they supported the background checks and the straw purchaser crackdown, they have some reservations about an assault weapons ban.

“It’s problematic in that it’s easy to say, ‘I know one when I see one,’ but if you actually define them in words, it becomes difficult,” Masland, of Thetford, said.

Cheney agreed.

“We have to define what an assault weapon is,” Cheney, of Norwich, said. “I don’t favor banning guns per se. We have to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and were we to ban military style things designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But (some) semi-automatic rifles are used to kill deer.”

Cautious Legislature

Nonetheless, Masland said the Town Meeting votes sent a strong message, at least for some legislators, that their constituents supported a gun control crackdown.

“That’s a clear message that Vermonters want something done about gun violence,” Masland said. “All of us in the Legislature recognize ... the legitimate pleadings of our constituents who have had guns in their family for generations and never hurt anyone. I’m not trying to evade the issue. ‘Yet to be seen,’ that’s a good way to put it. It’s a two-year biennium, and if it doesn’t happen this year, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It takes quite a while for a lot of things to go through the Legislature when they are important.”

Norwich resident Laurie Levin, who helped petition the gun control article onto the Town Meeting ballot, said her loose-knit coalition will spend the next few months trying to organize gun control groups in more communities, with an eye toward pushing legislation in next year’s session and awakening what she believes is a “silent majority” of residents in Vermont who favor gun control.

“There hasn’t been a big open debate on the floor of the House and Senate, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future. It’s something people are talking about,” Levin said. “What we have to do is let (legislators) know that they don’t have to be afraid, that there are a majority of Vermonters who support them, and they don’t have to worry about losing their positions. We have to have that silent majority speaking up.”

A slew of bills were introduced this year, including measures that would require background checks for gun show purchasers, ban semi-automatic weapons, ban silencers and require a 48-hour waiting period for gun sales. None merited a hearing.

Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said that is for a good reason: The proposed laws were based on emotion, he said, not sound policy.

“That’s the committee process — they take up the bills in the priority that they place on them,” Hughes said. “There’s a lot of emotionalism about this issue, and legislation passed in emotional arguments is not sound public policy.”

Hughes said state lawmakers should defer to the federal government so that the 50 states can have uniform gun laws.

Message Being Heard

State Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, who introduced in the House the gun safety bill that McCormack entered in the Senate, was more optimistic that lawmakers would take action, and said the poll results and the Town Meeting votes would help build momentum for gun control measures.

“I think the support for the article combined with the Castleton poll will send a message to the legislators and governor,” Clarkson said.“There’s lots of conversation about it. There’s plenty of discussion going on. I think the House is ready for this. I have some hope. A bill is just a starting point for a committee. We’re limited on time and hope. We’re not limited on courage. I would be disappointed if the Legislature took no action this session.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Shumlin merited a 92 rating from the National Rifle Association last year, and said that he did not support a ban on assault weapons or high capacity ammunition or closing the so-called gun show loophole. Shumlin recently said, however, he would support a federal assault weapons ban.

Vermont is one of four states that allows residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

The inaction in Montpelier comes as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has approved gun control legislation in recent weeks. Yesterday, on a 10-8 vote, the committee chaired by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, approved a bill banning the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of certain assault weapons. (The measure is given little chance of passing the Senate, let alone the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. )

In recent days, the committee has approved three other gun control measures introduced in the wake of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead. Included is a bill that, for the first time, made it explicitly illegal yo engage in straw purchasing, buying firearms for a person who is prohibited from obtaining one.

“What we have accomplished in our committee work has been difficult, but we have not accepted that as an excuse to do nothing,” Leahy said. “We have listened to heart-wrenching testimony. We have opened the process to input from all, and we have proceeded methodically to search for commonsense answers to the recurring tragedy of gun violence.”

Mark Davis can be reached at or 603-727-3304.

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