From left: Rob Roper of the Ethan Allen Institute, Bill Moore of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury) and Ed Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont
About 100 gun rights advocates gathered at the University of Vermont’s Ira Allen Chapel Thursday evening for a discussion that ranged from the Second Amendment to the wide variety of societal ills that participants said are causing gun violence.
The resounding message under the chapel’s vaulted ceilings was that gun control is not the solution to America’s gun violence problem.
“In the various conversations we’re having in the legislature right now, it is real and true that we have a great struggle not only in Vermont but in our country,” said Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury).
That struggle was evident as ticketed guests made their way into the chapel. Standing silently outside were about two dozen students holding signs with statistics about gun violence and calls for gun control. The students made their way inside for the start of the event. As the speakers began to talk, they stood and turned their backs to the stage. After about five minutes of standing in silence, they filed out of the building.
Willhoit and the other five speakers at the event said new gun laws won't ease gun violence. Rob Roper, the president of the conservative Ethan Allen Institute, said gun rights advocates should try to shift the political discussion “away from ‘Guns are bad,’” and, “‘No they’re not.’”
Roper suggested Second Amendment advocates pitch other solutions to gun violence, such as limiting the distribution of violent video games.
“Maybe you should have to get a criminal background check to buy … Grand Theft Auto, a very violent video game, first-person shooter,” Roper said, referring to the popular game series.
Roper also said the recent case in Fair Haven in which police arrested a man who was allegedly planning a school shooting was the result of excessive media coverage of the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“The one in Vermont would not have happened if [the Florida shooting] had not been on the news ubiquitously. These are copycats … and why they’re copying is we give them a platform in the news media,” Roper said. “What if we decided we were going to ban media coverage of these mass shootings to prevent copycat—”
The room erupted in applause, and then Roper finished his point:
“Well, what they’d probably say is, ‘You can’t do that because that’s a violation of our First Amendment.’ And it is! But what comes after the First Amendment?”
(According to a Vermont State Police affidavit, Jack Sawyer’s Fair Haven plot, and his purchase of a shotgun he allegedly planned to use in the attack, pre-dated the Florida shooting.)
News coverage came up repeatedly. Gun Owners of Vermont Vice President Bob DePino said the organization has identified 15 anti-gun newspapers in Vermont “that we know of” and remarked on the volume of news stories about guns. All of them, he said, were anti-gun.
“I just looked at the Burlington paper that shall not be named and noticed 18 gun articles in the last two weeks,” DePino said.
Rep. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), another speaker, also named video games as a cause of modern society’s problems.
“Kids today won’t get their ass off the couch,” he said. “We can’t field football teams anymore.”
UVM students demonstrated outside the Ira Allen Chapel before a gun rights discussion Thursday.
The conservative student group Turning Point USA at UVM sponsored the event, and Jace Laquerre — a UVM student who served as a GOP delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention — helped organize it. Laquerre said politics were strictly off-limits because of the group’s nonprofit status, but the speakers turned to the inevitable topic of flurry of gun legislation in Montpelier.
Just before leaving for this week's Town Meeting Day break, the House passed a bill that would allow police to take guns from people deemed an “extreme risk” by a court, or at the scene of a domestic violence arrest. The Senate passed a bill with a similar court process for “extreme risk” situations, and a separate bill that would mandate universal background checks and raise the legal age to buy a gun to 21.
Recalling the House’s vote, Brennan said his fellow lawmakers were governing with emotion and getting predictable results.
“We came out with a piece of crap,” he said.
Eddie Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, had a different metaphor for the House’s work on its version of the “extreme risk” bill, which had passed the Senate unanimously without any domestic violence measures.
“It was raped in the house,” Cutler said, adding that he thinks House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) runs the committee “like a dictator.”
Cutler emphasized the need for an uncompromising view of Second Amendment rights. Lawmakers are taking a "guilty until proven innocent" approach, he asserted. “It’s a witch hunt just like the witch hunts at Salem,” he said.
The speakers also included Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs president Chris Bradley, Gun Owners of Vermont vice president Bob DePino and Vermont Traditions Coalition firearms policy analyst Bill Moore. They all emphasized the importance of voting.
“If you’re not registered to vote you are unarmed in the biggest fight that we face in terms of protecting our Second Amendment rights,” Roper told the audience.
During a Q &A session, UVM sophomore Claire Tellekson-Flash pointed out that the speakers named many proposals that won’t work to curb gun violence, then asked them to name their solutions.
Roper’s answer had nothing to do with guns.
“I think the real solution is going to come from something like school choice,” he said, noting that without it, school systems “trap” students in situations where they feel uncomfortable or ostracized, which can lead them to build up resentment until they come to school with a gun.