Gov. Phil Scott, who has long opposed any new restrictions on gun ownership, shifted his position Friday following the arrest of a young man who allegedly intended to commit mass murder at a Rutland County school.
Eighteen-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney was arrested Thursday and, in an interview with police, outlined a detailed plan for shooting students — "as many as I can get," according to the arrest affidavit submitted in court — at Fair Haven Union High School. It seems clear from reading the affidavit that Sawyer would likely have carried out his plan, if not for private individuals alerting authorities on two separate occasions.
Scott appeared deeply shaken by this very close call as he addressed reporters Friday afternoon in his Montpelier office. "If we are at a point when we put our kids on a bus and send them to school without being able to guarantee their safety, who are we?" he asked.
"Just yesterday, I did an interview noting that we are the safest state in the nation," he continued, referring to remarks he made to Seven Days' Taylor Dobbs. "But the reality of how close we came to a devastating tragedy underscores the threat of violence that faces the entire country.
"As a result, I've been asking myself, 'Are we doing everything we can to protect our kids?'" Scott said. His change in heart, he added, means opening the discussion to such issues as mental health, school safety, gun safety and, potentially at least, some form of gun control legislation.
Scott would not identify any specific actions or bills he might now support. In response to questions, he said, "Everything should be on the table at this point." He indicated that bills currently being considered by the legislature — including one that would mandate criminal background checks for all gun purchasers — would be "a starting point for us to at least have a conversation."
And he admitted that his mind had been changed by Fair Haven's close call. "With the events in Florida being so far away, and feeling as though we were immune to this type of threat," he said, "but reading the affidavit and seeing how close we came to disaster, led me to believe that I have an obligation to protect our citizens."
While a simple willingness to open a conversation about gun issues may seem an underwhelming response to a near-tragedy, it represents a definite change for Scott. "I need to be open-minded, objective and at least consider anything that will protect our kids," he said.
Putting words into action will come later, but it was clear that the Fair Haven incident affected Scott as a leader and as a human being in a way that goes beyond the usual "thoughts and prayers" rhetoric.
The police affidavit, written by Detective Sergeant Todd Wilkins of the Vermont State Police, is a chilling document, showing how very close Vermont came to having its very own Columbine, Sandy Hook or Parkland.
The sequence of events started on Tuesday, when a parent of one of Sawyer's friends reported to Fair Haven police that Sawyer was behaving strangely, had alluded to earlier threats against the high school and had just bought a shotgun and four boxes of ammunition.
Police learned that Sawyer had been in a residential treatment facility in Maine for more than a year to help him cope with anxiety and depression. His father, David Sawyer, told police that Jack had recently checked himself out of the facility and returned to Vermont — and had stopped taking psychiatric medication.
On Wednesday, three officers, including Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries, interviewed Jack Sawyer, who admitted to making threats against the school in the past but said he had bought the gun for target shooting. According to the affidavit, "Chief Humphries did not ask Sawyer about any plans to commit a violent act." Police concluded there was no evidence to continue investigating.
On Thursday, Humphries was contacted by the Dutchess County, N.Y., sheriff's department, which said that a young woman who lived in the area had received disturbing social media messages from Sawyer. One message said, in part, "Just a few days ago I was plotting on shooting up my old high school so it's not like I really wanted a future anyways." In a message sent on Wednesday, in the wake of the Florida incident, Sawyer wrote, "That's fantastic. 100% support it."
Sawyer was then taken into custody by the Vermont State Police. According to Wilkins' affidavit, Sawyer told police that he had been inspired to commit a mass school shooting by reading a book about the 1999 Columbine incident, in which 13 people were killed and another 21 wounded. He said he had bought the shotgun for use in his plan, and had selected ammunition that would "cause greater casualties and injuries," Wilkins reported.
Sawyer also recounted details of his plan, according to Wilkins, including his thoughts on inflicting maximum casualties. In a search of Sawyer's car, police found the shotgun and a diary entitled "Journal of an Active Shooter."
It's clear from reading the affidavit that Sawyer would not have been stopped without the intervention of not one, but two private individuals who independently reported their concerns to police. At the press conference, Scott and other officials repeatedly urged Vermonters, "If you see something, say something."
Sawyer was arraigned Friday in Rutland County Superior Court on charges of attempted aggravated murder, attempted first-degree murder and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He is being held without bail. Conviction on the first charge could mean a life sentence without the possibility of parole.