NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- State lawmakers are planning to challenge Vermont's permissive gun laws in the upcoming legislative session, but any attempt to restrict firearms or ammunition is likely to be met with opposition steeped in a history and culture emanating from before statehood.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Burlington, plans to file legislation in the coming days to enact a state-level assault weapons ban. It would prevent the sale of semi-automatic firearms utilizing a detachable magazine and ban high-capacity magazines. The bill would also require trigger locks on all firearms.
Restricting so-called assault weapons
Additional provisions restricting firearms could be added to garner support among colleagues, he said, but the focus is on restricting so-called assault weapons.
"If there are other measures that people think are helpful and those are added in committee, I'm happy to have them. I want something to get done. I don't think you do that by being purist about your legislation," Baruth said. "What generally happens is they get dragged down by their own weight. What I wanted to do was focus on what is being used again and again in these killings."
Widely viewed as one of the most liberal states in the nation, Vermont also has some of the least restrictive gun laws.
Firearms are barred only from court houses, schools and school buses, according to Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell.
Despite few gun restrictions, Vermont is also among the states with the lowest crime rates each year.
But the Dec. 14 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has reinvigorated a longstanding conversation on gun control in Vermont and across the country. Police said 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother at the home they shared before forcing his way into the school where he gunned down 26 more people, including 20 first-grade students, before taking his own life.
Law enforcement officials in Connecticut said the weapon used by Lanza was a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with an extended magazine holding 30 bullets. That weapon was previously banned under a federal law enacted in 1994 but allowed to expire in 2004. It would be banned in Vermont under Baruth's legislation.
Baruth said he expects fierce opposition from gun rights advocates who believe that "any change is tyranny." The state's gun culture dates back to legendary Revolutionary figure Ethan Allen and his fellow militiamen.
But guns have evolved and are far more destructive today, Baruth said.
"We're a rural state. There's a long hunting tradition. Go back to the Green Mountain Boys, the idea of a well-organized militia. I get that. What I guess I would like people to admit on the other side is that times have changed technologically," he said.
"You can equip a single person with enough firepower to kill an entire room, and they don't have to rely on a fertilizer bomb. They can just bring a few guns and kill 50 or 60 people. That's not defending their home from a single intruder. I want some acknowledgment of that, and I think you don't often get that from opponents of gun control," Baruth added.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the right of Vermonters to possess weapons is clearly stated in the state's constitution.
Article 16 of the document, adopted in 1793, states that Vermonters "have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state." It is even more clear than the U.S. Constitution, which states, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
"I think it's partly libertarian, more than liberal," Sears said of the distinction Vermont's early leaders included in the Vermont document. "It says right in the (state) constitution I have a right to own arms for my personal defense. That, I don't believe, is the same way the U.S. Constitution is written. So, it starts over 200 years ago in the Vermont culture that we have a right to defend ourselves and we have a right to use arms to do that."
Additionally, Sears said the state constitution does not limit that right to one's home or property. Laws today reflect the spirit of Vermont's early days by allowing firearms to be owned without permits or registration and concealed on one's body.
In today's world, lawmakers should be looking at ways to keep weapons out of the hands of people with "significant mental health issues" and "people with criminal backgrounds," according to Sears.
"Everything should be on the table. We should have a discussion both nationally and at the state level regarding violence in our communities and the use of high-capacity magazines," he said.
Mary Ann Carlson, a former Democratic senator from Bennington County, said she experienced the backlash of Vermont's strong gun culture after introducing legislation in 1994 that would have restricted semi-automatic weapons and required gun registration in Vermont.
Carlson was defeated in the ensuing election and said her bill played a role in that defeat.
"I think probably the NRA came after me," she said. "There was a bumper sticker out that said, ‘guns and ammo yes, Carlson no.'"
Carlson and other sponsors were looking to keep firearms out of the hands of people who should not own them, she said. She still believes that "many incredible people who have guns use them responsibly" and those responsible gun owners could help create restrictions that would prevent gun violence.
"I wish that the people who use guns responsibly would speak out so people who use guns irresponsibly can't just go out and buy a gun and the next day use it," Carlson said.
In the short-term, Sears said he hopes to meet soon with the Speaker of the House, the Senate President Pro Tem, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the office of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin to discuss how lawmakers should proceed.
"Should there be a conversation on violence in our communities? Absolutely," Sears said, but warned that additional restrictions may not prevent a tragedy. "Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and where did it happen? It happened in Connecticut."
President Barack Obama, in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, tapped Vice President Joe Biden to head a task force to develop legislative proposals to protect Americans from gun violence and prevent future tragedies.
A national law is better suited to protect Vermonters and Americans, Sears said.
"We need to see what the federal government does, if they do anything, which is doubtful. We at least need to see what they come up with," he said.
Shumlin, who will be sworn in for a second two-year term on Thursday, is unlikely to support any new state-level restrictions on gun laws. He completed a questionnaire for the NRA last year that was provided by his campaign to the media. In his answers, Shumlin, a hunter who owns six guns but is not a member of the NRA, rejected a state-level ban on firearms in the questionnaire as well as state registration or licensing of guns.
He also indicated he would oppose legislation mandating locking devices on guns. Instead, Shumlin checked off that he would support a resolution urging Vermont public schools to adopt the NRA's accident prevention program as part of its curriculum.
Spokeswoman Susan Allen said Shumlin was unavailable to comment for this story. He has stated publicly several times since the Newtown shooting that he opposes state-level restrictions on firearms. He has steadfastly refused to indicate whether he would support additional federal legislation.
However, Allen said, Shumlin "is open to seeing what the president and what the White House comes up with."
"The NRA questionnaire makes it look like he wouldn't budge an inch but I think like any parent the Newtown shooting made him question things," she said.
Baruth said he will push his legislation aggressively, despite Shumlin's apparent opposition. "I think, first of all, you can't let your actions be controlled by people down the line. You have to do what you were elected to do," he said.
The governor "is making a valid point" about the need for federal action, Baruth said. But, laws must move forward at the local and state level, too, he said.
"I think of it as a belt, suspenders and super glue approach. You need a federal approach, you need a state approach and you need a municipal approach," Baruth said.
At least one additional Senate member is drafting gun legislation, as well as House members, according to Baruth. He declined to identify those lawmakers, but said legislation is expected to be introduced in both chambers.
"I understand that it's not something anybody wants to take on. It will be very contentious. I just feel like we're at a point where we have to have the conversation," Baruth said.
The NRA and other gun advocates have charged that those seeking new restrictions on firearms are exploiting the tragedy in Newtown. Sears, also a gun owner but not a member of the NRA, disagrees with that sentiment.
"I don't think you're exploiting anything by having this discussion at this point, quite frankly," he said.
But, preventing future tragedies will require more than new restrictions on firearms, Sears cautioned. Much like views on smoking and obesity have evolved, the thinking in Vermont and the nation concerning guns and violence will also need to change, he said.
"I think society has to take that same type of action with violence. It's a culture shift," Sears said. "There needs to be, somehow, that culture shift away from the use of guns."