Scott Says ‘Everything’s on the Table’ When It Comes to Gun Proposals

  • Gabriel Groveman, 14, of Marshfield, Vt., spoke along with several other students from schools around Vermont during an event at the State House in Montpelier to push for stronger gun control measures to make schools more safe, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Students packed the Cedar Creek Room at the State House, and gave their remarks surrounded by imagery from the Civil War including the painting "The First Vermont Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Oct. 19, 1864" by Julian Scott. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A painting of Maj. Gen. Leonard F. Wing looks down from behind the signs held by students advocating for stronger gun control laws at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Senate Judiciary Committee members Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow, left, and Joe Benning, R-Lyndon, foreground, spent their morning taking testimony from students who traveled from around the state to advocate for stricter gun laws at the State House in Montpelier, Vt., Thursday, Feb, 22, 2018. The committee is currently considering S.221, a bill that would prevent people deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others from possessing or obtaining firearms. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe and Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, left, said that since last week's school shooting threat in Fair Haven, Vt., all Vermont schools will undergo additional reviews under a safety and security audit system already in place, during a news conference in the governor's office in Montpelier, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • South Burlington High School student Yixian Liao, 18, was among students from schools around Vermont who packed the Cedar Creek room at the State House to pressure lawmakers to act on strengthening gun control in Montpelier, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2018

Montpelier — Spurred by a school shooting in Florida, a threat recently uncovered in Fair Haven, Vt., and a groundswell of support from students around the state, lawmakers are pledging to move forward with gun control legislation that they say will help prevent tragedies in the Vermont classroom.

Scores of teenagers from across Vermont held a Statehouse news conference on Thursday morning to call on lawmakers to act.

The students described growing up in a culture of constant vigilance and fear where they participate active-shooter drills along with their studies and find themselves flinching at the sound of balloons popping in the mall.

“The riches of countries around the world lie in its youth, not the fiscal degree or the bounty of weaponry it commands,” Trang Do, a student from South Burlington High School, said at the event. “There is a choice to be made here, and we hope you choose common sense. We hope you choose the future.”

And the state’s leaders do appear ready to act. In separate news conferences on Thursday, legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Phil Scott appeared to agree on gun control measures that could allow authorities to take weapons from domestic abusers and people who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.

They also expressed openness to conversation about instituting universal statewide background checks for gun sales.

Half an hour after the students spoke, Scott, who said he owns firearms, said his views on gun control had evolved dramatically in the course of only a few days — ever since last Friday, when news broke that police had detained an 18-year-old from Poultney, Vt., named Jack Sawyer, who allegedly planned a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.

Before last week, Scott said during his own news conference on Thursday, he had thought Vermont “immune” to such incidents.

“But after reading the (Fair Haven) affidavit,” he said, “it wasn’t a question of if it was going to happen. It was just a question of which day. And that has a way of rocking your very core.”

Flanked by the heads of the Department of Public Safety and the Agency of Education, Scott rolled out his proposal for reform. He said he hoped to strengthen school security, enact legislation to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them and work to make Vermont communities healthier.

“I truly believe the conversation cannot be just about guns,” he said.

Among other measures, Scott proposed creating a $5 million fund to audit and improve schools’ security measures, as well as a “shield law” that would protect informants like the person who tipped off authorities about Fair Haven. He said he planned to create a task force that would come up with recommendations to improve school safety, gun safety and community mental health.

As for immediate gun control action, Scott said he supported enacting legislation known as S. 221 that would allow police to quickly obtain “extreme risk protection orders” preventing people deemed imminent threats to themselves or others from obtaining or possessing firearms.

Scott said he supported a few other bills in the Legislature, including H. 422, which provides for the removal of weapons from people arrested or cited for domestic assault; and H. 876, a ban on “bump stocks,” weapon attachments allowing an extremely rapid rate of fire that a man used to massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in October.

The governor also floated the idea of raising the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21.

The emergency confiscation bill, S. 221, and the domestic violence bill, H. 422, have been under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee since before the Fair Haven incident, but have been held up by a skeptical three-member majority that includes state Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow.

Nitka on Thursday afternoon said that, despite some concerns about due process for gun owners, S. 221 was likely to make it out of committee soon, with some elements of H. 422 worked into it.

Democratic leaders, including Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, pledged support on Thursday for legislation requiring universal background checks. But Nitka said she does not support S. 6, a bill providing for universal checks, including on sales of guns between private parties, that is in her committee.

“I’m not big on that,” Nitka, a veteran senator from Windsor County, said in an interview. “It’s not the biggest of our problems.”

“I don’t believe it will cure any of the situations that led you and I to have this conversation,” state Sen. Joe Benning, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of a universal background check law. Benning’s Caledonia district includes several Bradford-area towns.

Gun-control measures that go even further, such as bans on certain types of guns or on high-capacity magazines, appeared to be off the table for Nitka.

“That really needs to be a federal thing,” she said.

But the governor and legislative leaders earlier that day expressed varying degrees of openness to universal background checks and some more stringent regulations.

“I’m open to everything. Everything’s on the table,” Scott said.

Despite repeated questions from reporters, Scott said he wouldn’t commit to signing background check legislation if it reached his desk. He emphasized instead that his willingness to consider it was a significant change from his past stance.

He expressed doubt that bans on specific kinds of weapons, including the AR-15 rifle and its cousins, would solve the problem. But he did say he was open to discussing measures that would restrict the number of bullets allowed in magazines — a potentially limiting factor on how quickly a shooter could wreak havoc.

“I don’t know that a 30-round magazine is something anyone needs,” he said.

Democratic legislative leaders, on the other hand, pledged to vote on background checks before the full House and Senate.

“Enough is enough,” Ashe, the Senate president pro tempore, said at yet another news conference on Thursday. “We will be taking action.”

Ashe, along with House Speaker Johnson, Lt. Governor David Zuckerman and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, credited students for their activism.

“They are calling the adults to task in helping them and their colleagues in high schools and middle schools around the country,” Johnson said.

Some of the students came from the Upper Valley, including a handful from Bradford, Vt., according to organizers, although they could not be reached for comment.

Hannah Pandya, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, told the dozens of reporters, legislators and students assembled on Thursday morning in the Cedar Creek Room that reform should have taken place nearly two decades ago, after the 1999 shooting at Columbine.

“Every item that could pose a danger to me and my peers is heavily regulated, from alcohol, to cigarettes, to ammonium nitrate fertilizer, to prescription medications, to cars, to over-the-counter painkillers, to scratch-off lottery tickets,” she said.

“And yet, we are continually told that the answer to semi-automatic weapons that can shoot up to 400 rounds per minute is not common-sense regulation. ... Don’t let Vermont become the next scene of slaughter. Don’t let Burlington, Brattleboro, Windham, St. Johnsbury become the next battleground. Instead, let Vermont become a leader in progress, as we have many times before.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.