Deadlocked and Loaded: Despite Public Support, Vermont Gun Control Legislation Going Nowhere
Gun control in Vermont? Turns out that was just a fantasy. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December was an unthinkable tragedy that ignited a national debate about gun laws. But it didn’t happen here. Most Vermonters aren’t touched by gun crimes. Gangs don’t terrorize our neighborhoods. Aside from the occasional hunting accident or robbery gone wrong, shootings are, fortunately, a rarity in these parts.
As Vermont Public Radio and the Vermont Press Bureau noted in a story this week, almost all of Vermont’s recent gun deaths have been suicides. In the past two years, all but six of the 130 deaths caused by firearms were self-inflicted. Tragic, to be sure, but hardly the stuff that makes the public — much less politicians — clamor for stricter gun laws.
So the news from Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex), the state’s foremost gun-control advocate, that gun-control legislation will not advance this year is hardly surprising. Waite-Simpson confirmed to Seven Days that H.124, a sweeping gun-control bill she cosponsored with 11 colleagues, doesn’t have the votes to pass — or the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin — and therefore won’t be brought to the House floor.
“It’s disgraceful that we can’t talk about some of these provisions like background checks,” said Waite-Simpson, adding that there will still be a hearing on her bill this session. “There’s wide agreement that background checks for all gun sales would make a big difference.”
Evidently, not wide enough.
For a brief moment after the Newtown, Conn., murders, it looked like gun-control legislation — long unthinkable in Vermont — might finally go somewhere. Pro-gun advocates beat back Sen. Phil Baruth’s (D-Chittenden) clumsy attempt at an assault-weapons ban, but a half dozen bills that followed were more strategic — and had more buy-in.
Pro-gun-control lawmakers also had an effective pitchwoman in Waite-Simpson. Her hometown of Essex was the site of a school shooting in 2006 that could have been another Sandy Hook had the kids not been on summer break. And an outspoken mother from Waite-Simpson’s district, Ge Wu, became a passionate champion for better gun-safety laws after her son, Aaron Xue, took his own life with a gun that wasn’t properly secured. Perhaps most importantly, Waite-Simpson owns guns.
But the blowback was intense, and enough lawmakers were dissuaded from wading into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Waite-Simpson said she received a torrent of emails from Vermonters opposed to her bill, which, among other things, would impose a state ban on high-capacity ammo clips.
“I’ve been warned by a few people that I’m kind of provoking this civil war,” said Waite-Simpson, whose bill also would expand background checks for gun buyers and require a mandatory safety course as a condition of carrying a concealed firearm. “I’m just trying to protect our children. I’m not trying to provoke a civil war.”
Waite-Simpson’s bill isn’t the only legislative proposal to limit access to guns or ammo. A Senate bill, S.94, seeks to prevent mentally disturbed individuals from obtaining guns. It would require the Department of Mental Health to report such individuals to a national background-check system if they are hospitalized because of presenting a danger to themselves or others; if they are found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity; or if they are declared incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness.
Federal law already bans selling firearms to people with severe mental illness, but only 27 states currently report mental-health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Vermont is not one of them.
The Senate bill that would change this has nine cosponsors — including all but one member of the committee that would take the lead on it, the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), said the Senate will not take up the bill unless the House passes something first. And that ain’t happening.
Talk about passing the buckshot.
News of the gun bills’ demise comes as a new poll from Castleton State College shows a majority of Vermonters — and on some questions, a majority of gun owners — support the kinds of gun-control measures under consideration in Montpelier and Washington, D.C. The poll released last Friday shows majority support for banning sales of high-capacity magazines, banning further sales of assault rifles and even making it illegal to own a previously purchased assault weapon.
Castleton Polling Institute director Rich Clark said the survey results revealed something important about Vermont’s gun politics. Gun owners and non-gun-owners agree more than one might think. On the question of requiring reporting from Vermont mental-health professionals to the NICS, 82 percent of respondents who own guns favored the idea. Among non-gun-owners, 88 percent favored it.
Support was almost as high for closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” that allows some weapons buyers to avoid criminal-background checks: 71 percent of gun owners back that. Only when Castleton analyzed results by political affiliation — Republican versus Democrat — did results show a greater division. Clark’s takeaway? That when it comes to guns, Vermonters are more divided by ideology than by self-interest.
But he cautioned that the poll did not measure one very important thing: “intensity of attitude.”
“You could walk away with the idea that people who favor more gun-control measures are in an overwhelming majority,” Clark said. But he added that if he worked for a political campaign — which he doesn’t — he would advise steering clear of the gun issue. “I believe people who are opposed just have a higher intensity level around the issue.”
That much was evident last Saturday when hundreds of gun-rights supporters descended on the Statehouse for the second Second Amendment rally of the session. Just a week earlier, hundreds of Vermonters converged in the same place calling for stricter gun laws in the wake of Sandy Hook.
Leading the charge at the pro-gun rally was freshman Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), a fifth-generation Vermonter who has emerged as a vocal proponent of gun rights. Rodgers said his family owns numerous guns — shotguns, rifles, handguns, even a Bushmaster AR — and uses them regularly for hunting and target shooting. Rodgers said “ARs” — which, he notes, refers to ArmaLite, the company that first made them, not assault rifle — are the most “customizable, user-friendly” rifles on the market. But he said they’ve been “villainized” because people have done horrible things with them.
How high is Rodgers’ “intensity level” around guns? Consider this: Last week, he introduced a “state sovereignty” bill, S.124, that proposes to “establish a criminal fine for federal officials who enforce, or attempt to enforce, federal law purporting to regulate certain firearms and firearm accessories in Vermont.” Rodgers told Seven Days that he got the idea from his son, who read that Alaska and Texas had passed similar laws.
“The worry is the feds could do something to affect what we can purchase and what we can own, and basically that [bill] is saying that we as Vermonters are not willing to give those things up,” said Rodgers, adding that legislative staff warned him the bill could be unconstitutional. Then he dropped a Hitler reference.
“The liberals in Germany some years ago took away all the firearms, and then they registered all the firearms, and they set it up perfectly for Hitler to go in, and all the firearms were registered; he knew exactly where they were, and he went in and confiscated them,” Rodgers said. That’s not what Rodgers fears, he said, but “it’s why the Second Amendment right was given to us.”
To liberals, Rodgers might sound like just another gun nut. But though the senator said he opposes the federal assault weapons ban, and banning high-capacity clips, he actually backs a number of gun-control proposals, including expanded background checks for gun buyers and better screening for mental-health issues. “I really hope that we can have a dialogue with the pros and the antis, because there are some things that we can agree on,” he said.
But it doesn’t look like such a dialogue will happen. Not a serious one, anyway.
Why not? To Evan Hughes, who lobbies on behalf of the Vermont State Rifle and Pistol Association and the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, it’s because Vermont doesn’t have a gun problem. He also questions whether Vermonters truly support tighter gun control, as indicated by the Castleton poll. He notes that the margin of support is suspiciously high compared with similar national surveys, indicating that Vermonters favor stricter firearms laws than do Americans generally. “As much as the liberal side of this state might want to believe, we are not going to be more restrictive than the rest of the nation,” Hughes said.
He questioned why Castleton didn’t ask people whether they favor stricter enforcement of existing laws, rather than just new ones, as a recent USA Today/Gallup poll did. “This is just wrong, the way they did this,” Hughes said, referring to Castleton. “It’s guaranteed to generate more response towards supporting more gun control, because stricter enforcement isn’t offered as an option.”
Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen said Vermont’s few urban areas certainly do have a gun problem. Over the past several years, he’s seen the number of drug crimes involving firearms rise sharply in his city. And when his officers find a felon in possession of a gun, they can’t arrest him for that. Under state law, it’s not illegal. All McQueen can do is pass along that info to the feds and hope they prosecute — but they often have bigger fish to fry, he said.
“People who say that we don’t have a problem in Vermont are not aware of what the problem is,” said McQueen, who supports elements of Waite-Simpson’s bill, including a provision to make firearm possession by a felon a state crime. The biggest problem in Vermont — as elsewhere — isn’t assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, McQueen said. It’s handguns. “There is a problem with gun violence in Vermont that we have not experienced much before,” he said.
One takeaway from this year’s gun “debate” might be this: There are gun-control measures that most people — even some of the staunchest pro-gun types — can agree on. But they’re dead on arrival if coupled with measures that hard-core gun owners will not accept, such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity clips. They’re bound to fail, too, if either side shouts down the possibility of compromise.
If what happened at Sandy Hook doesn’t propel Vermont legislators to pass new gun laws, it’s difficult to imagine what would. A tragedy closer to home? Waite-Simpson, like all of us, hopes it never comes to that. But she believes it’s possible.
“Sandy Hook could have been anywhere in the country,” she said.
Paul Heintz was on vacation and will return next week.