Weinberger and Fellow Mayors Call for New Federal Gun Laws | Off Message

Weinberger and Fellow Mayors Call for New Federal Gun Laws

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For a politician who typically plays it safe, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger's decision Monday to speak out on gun violence was an uncharacteristic move.

Barely a week before, he and the Burlington City Council were reminded of the strength of Vermont's gun rights community when nearly 100 activists showed up at City Hall to oppose a proposed assault weapons ban.

Apparently, that wasn't enough to dissuade Weinberger from pushing the issue further.

"As the father of a first-grader and as a mayor who gets one of the first calls when someone is shot in this city, I feel a deep responsibility to join the loud call for action now to protect our children and communities from illegal guns," Weinberger said during a press conference Monday afternoon at the Burlington Police Department's North Avenue headquarters.

Standing beside the mayors of Montpelier and Barre, Weinberger announced that he'd joined a national gun control group founded by New York's Michael Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and embraced three of its legislative priorities: to improve the federal background check system, to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and to crack down on gun trafficking.

While hardly breaking new ground in the national debate over gun laws, Weinberger's move was notable in this gun-loving state simply for the contrast it painted with other prominent Vermont politicians, who have mostly sought to avoid discussing gun laws in the wake of last month's deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

By raising the issue himself, Burlington's mayor stood out from the crowd. And for a local politician who clearly harbors statewide political ambitions, that's a risky move.

More noteworthy still was Weinberger's decision to include in his press conference a cast of characters with viewpoints wildly divergent from his own. One of them — Burlington gun collector Ian Galbraith, who was part of the pro-gun crowd at last week's city council hearing — immediately distanced himself from the group Weinberger was joining.

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"I disagree with the banning of so-called assault weapons and high-capacity clips and I do not and would not endorse Mayors Against Illegal Guns as an organization," Galbraith (pictured at podium) said at Monday's press conference, while standing by Weinberger's side.

"However, I do believe in maximizing the efficiency of the current background check system that will help keep more guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. And I think this will keep things being legal for those of us gun owners who do honor our covenant of responsibility with society."

Even among Weinberger's fellow mayors, differences of opinion emerged.

Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, who attracted national attention last week with a plea to local gun show organizers to temporarily desist from selling assault weapons, joined Weinberger in calling for more background checks. He argued that loopholes in federal law allow some 40 percent of gun sales to take place without a background check.

"This is like setting up two lines at the airport for getting on a plane — one which requires a security check and the other that does not," Lauzon said. "Today 6.6 million gun purchases are made each year in the line that has no security screening."

But Lauzon hastened to add that while he too was joining the national gun control group, he disagreed with its — and Weinberger's — conclusion that assault weapons ought to be banned. 

"I do not favor a ban on military-style assault weapons or high-capacity magazines at this time," he said, adding that Rutland Mayor Chris Louras, who was unable to attend the event, shared that view. Lauzon explained that a Mayors Against Illegal Guns representative told him he could simply cross out any of the group's principles with which he disagreed when filling out his application to join.

Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, on the other hand, went further than Burlington's mayor. While Weinberger declined to say whether he supports a state assault weapons ban, as proposed by Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), Hollar said he's all for it.

"I think we need to work at both the state and federal levels to address this problem," Hollar said.

That position contrasts with the view held by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has argued that gun violence is a national problem in need of a "50 state solution," and who opposes any new state regulation of guns. Hollar concurs that the federal government should take the lead, but said Monday that Vermont should nevertheless move forward with its own assault weapons ban — as lawmakers in New York did on Monday.

"Let me say I agree with Gov. Shumlin on many initiatives. We're not going to agree on everything," he said. "This is one where I think we just disagree on."

Weinberger was far less willing to contradict the governor — a close political ally for whom he once worked. Though Burlington's mayor was perfectly willing to ban assault weapons at the local and federal level, he was curiously hesitant to back a state ban.

Asked to explain his rationale, Weinberger said. "You know, I'm not in Montpelier. I think that's something that those representatives there could address."

No matter that Weinberger isn't in Washington either.

Asked again to clarify why he supports some assault weapons bans and not others, Weinberger said, "It seems to me the conversation that's ripe is the federal conversation. That would, if it was to happen at the federal level, it would preclude the need, I think, for state or local action."

He added, "If we don't get action at the federal level, would I support Sen. Baruth's call for a statewide ban? I think that would be consistent with what I'm saying today. But in terms of my remarks, my point was we're having an important federal conversation, and I think that's what we're engaging in."

To City Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4), who voted against Burlington's proposed assault weapons ban last week, but who joined Weinberger at Monday's press conference, focusing on what divides people misses the point. What brought the group together, he said, was a common belief that better background check laws could make a difference.

"We are not here to pit politician against politician today," he said. "We're trying to find common ground."

Photos by Paul Heintz

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