The day after a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 students at a Florida high school, Gov. Phil Scott defended Vermont's permissive gun laws and rejected calls for new restrictions.
"We’re fortunate we’re one of the safest states in the country, and I believe our gun laws are balanced," the first-term Republican said Thursday afternoon. "They balance public safety with our rights."
Rather than limiting access to firearms, Scott said the state should focus on providing more training and drills in schools so that staff and students can prepare for active-shooter situations.
"We should do more [training], and certainly we should be vigilant at this point in time," Scott said, citing concerns about "copycat" shootings in the wake of the Florida massacre.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), an outspoken gun control proponent, saw it differently. He said the latest incident should "increase the shame" on the Vermont Senate, which he criticized for failing to address gun violence.
"We are doing jack shit about a problem that’s every bit as pressing nationwide as the opioid epidemic," Baruth said Thursday. "And the reason I say that is not to denigrate what’s happening with the opioid epidemic — people are dying — but the mass-shooting epidemic that we’re experiencing is decaying American life at its foundation."
Five years ago, after a gunman killed 26 people at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Baruth introduced legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition. Under pressure from fellow senators, he quickly withdrew the bill.
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Sen. Phil Baruth
In 2015, the Senate considered legislation that would require anyone purchasing a gun in Vermont to undergo a federal criminal background check. Current law mandates such checks only when the seller is a federally licensed firearm dealer.
That bill failed on a 3-2 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Sens. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Jeanette White (D-Windham) supporting it and Sens. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) and Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) opposing it.
Baruth made a new push for universal background checks last year. But because the panel still consists of the same five members, he argued, "one senator in that committee is making the decision for the entire Senate" as to whether his bill reaches the floor for debate.
"What I’ve been trying to say since the beginning of this session is that that’s not allowable anymore," Baruth said. "We’ve reached a point where we have to demand that the Senate function as the deliberative body it’s supposed to be."
Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Thursday that he supports Baruth’s proposal.
“I understand the culture of sportsmen and women. I fully support it,” the Democratic AG said. “They are responsible gun owners, but when somebody ... is a threat to our public safety, they have forfeited their right to own and to possess a firearm, in my opinion.”
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) responded to the Florida shooting by condemning inaction by Congress.
"It was yet another awful and sobering event," she said. "At some point Congress decided that it was okay for children to die."
Johnson noted that the Vermont House passed a bill last year that would allow police to confiscate guns when they make an arrest for domestic violence. That legislation is also stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sears, who chairs the panel, has refused to advance the House bill, citing constitutional concerns.
Sears said Thursday that Florida’s school shooting would not change his approach to gun legislation. He introduced a bill this year that would create a court process allowing police to take guns away from those deemed to be an "extreme risk" to themselves or others. He said that such a policy might prevent situations similar to this week's mass shooting, "assuming that somebody came forward and said to police, you know, this person is dangerous right now and has shown these pictures on Facebook, has indicated threats."
Gov. Scott said Thursday that he had not spoken with Sears about the bill, but he indicated that he would keep an open mind if it passed the legislature.
"We’ll make sure that we have all voices heard on that," the governor said. "I agree with the premise that someone that has a mental illness should be prevented from obtaining a firearm."
But Scott said his mind was made up about Baruth's universal background check bill. He noted that early reports suggest the Florida shooter passed a background check in order to obtain the weapon he used in the shooting.
"So that doesn't always prevent these types of situations, unfortunately," Scott said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.