At least six towns in the region are considering a largely symbolic resolution that instructs federal and state lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require criminal background checks for every gun sold in the United States, and make gun trafficking a federal crime with real penalties for "straw purchasers," or those who purchase arms for those barred from doing so.
It's a proposition that voters in Hartland approved this morning after a tense but mostly civil Town Meeting Day floor debate about the possible merits or perils of gun control. While plenty of residents weighed in with their skepticism about the resolution — criticizing it as vague, unnecessary and a waste of time — the supporters ultimately carried the day.
"I'm tired of doing nothing, and I'm tired of our legislators being intimidated by a small, small lobby group with a lot of money," said Michael Heaney.
Heaney stressed that he wasn't an "anti-gun person" and said his family keeps weapons at their Hartford home. He identified himself as a former junior officer who led an infantry platoon in combat.
In fact, pointing out past military service became a common refrain among speakers at the meeting on both sides of the issue. Art Rosson, a Korean War veteran, spoke at length — he was eventually cut off for exceeding a 10-minute time limit — about his opposition to the resolution. Paraphrasing the words of National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, Rosson said, "The only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man, or woman, with a gun."
Bill Donahue responded to that sentiment a few moments later with this: "That's not the kind of country I want to live in," earning a round of applause from the assembly.
Dori Galton collected nearly 200 signatures on the petition that landed the gun-control measure on Hartland's ballot. She made the resolution her personal project after attending a meeting of the Norwich group Citizens Against Assault Weapons in the wake of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The article wasn't about overturning Second Amendment rights or taking away guns, Galton told voters on Tuesday morning.
"This article is about agreeing as a town, as a state, and as a nation that we need to start a hard conversation about the prevalence of gun violence in the United States," she said.
The gun-control resolution was the second-to-last article on Hartland's agenda for the meeting, and after the moderator awarded the floor vote to the "ayes," a number of residents stood up and left the meeting abruptly. (Whether that was because of their dissatisfaction with the vote, or simply the looming lunch hour, wasn't clear.)
Lingering in the vestibule of Damon Hall as the meeting wrapped up, Dave Broder, Lewis Marcotte and John Usher shook their heads about the vote. Broder said he was "very disappointed" in the town's vote, and all three men wondered if the support was truly representative of public opinion in Hartland. Many voters, they pointed out, have to work during the mid-morning town meeting. They expressed skepticism at the prospect of tighter gun control, speculating that more rules would only push illegal weapons trade further underground.
"I come from two groups of people who were disarmed and then massacred," said Broder, referring to his Native American and Jewish ancestry. "So when I see any infringement on my Second Amendment, there's multiple red flags that fly — and they are flying straight out in the wind."
Another man, brushing past, was blunter in his assessment of the voters who backed the article: "Fucking idiots," he said.
The Tuesday morning meeting was emblematic of Vermont's Town Meeting Day tradition, in which residents gather annually to debate issues as practical as town highway budgets and as lofty as gun-control measures. Citizens have in recent years employed the forum to send symbolic messages on any number of issues that stretch beyond their town's boundaries. In 2007, 37 towns approved resolutions calling for George W. Bush's impeachment. Two years later, 33 municipalities backed a resolution asking legislators to deny the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant an operating permit past 2012.
This year, the gun-control article was on Town Meeting Day agendas and ballots in five other towns: Thetford, Woodstock, Norwich, Vershire and Strafford. Thetford voters also approved the measure at their Saturday meeting.
One of Hartland's native sons is Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who came out in January in support of tighter gun-control laws. "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," said Weinberger at a January press conference.
Weinberger also joined forces with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national gun-control group founded by New York's Michael Bloomberg. And it was Weinberger, borrowing language used by the coalition of mayors, who passed on the language that inspired the wording of the resolutions on ballots in the Upper Valley.
In fact, both of Weinberger's parents — Michael and Ethel Weinberger — piped up in support this morning of Hartland's gun-control resolution. As the town meeting adjourned, Ethel Weinberger and Galton paused at the back of the town hall, quietly greeting a few fellow residents who thanked them in passing.
"I really think, at this point, it is up to the people of the U.S. to say that something needs to happen. We have been silent for so long," said Ethel Weinberger. And what better place to speak up, she said, than town meeting? Weinberger and Galton agreed that the NRA is louder, better organized and better funded than most ordinary citizens, who they believe support tighter gun-control rules. It's only at forums like town meeting, said Weinberger, where voters can truly speak up and have their say.
"We don't know whether this is going to work. We don't know if this is going to have any affect. But it behooves us to try," said Ethel Weinberger.