Analysis: How Gun Votes Divided the Vermont House | Off Message

Analysis: How Gun Votes Divided the Vermont House

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Rep. Jim Harrison - FILE: STEFAN HARD
  • File: Stefan Hard
  • Rep. Jim Harrison
Rep. Brian Keefe (R-Manchester) left the Vermont Statehouse last Friday night after a 10-hour gun-control debate convinced he'd done the right thing by voting "no." He had supported three out of four measures included in the landmark legislation: raising the purchasing age to 21 and banning bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. But he'd had reservations about the fourth — requiring background checks for all gun sales — so he had opposed the underlying bill.

That night, the House gave preliminary approval to the legislation, known as S.55, on an 85-59 vote.

Four days and another six hours of debate later, Keefe had another chance to weigh in on the bill Tuesday night. This time, the Manchester Republican voted for it, joining an 89-54 majority in sending it back to the Senate.

During those two days of voting, members of the Vermont House considered no fewer than 15 amendments. The abundance of roll-call votes offered an unusually clear and detailed look at how 150 state reps approached the politics and policy of gun laws. Seven Days compiled the results of five of the most controversial amendments, as well as Friday's and Tuesday's votes on the underlying bill, and interviewed lawmakers about their decisions. (See chart below illustrating how each House member voted.)

Among the most popular amendments was one banning bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more rapidly. A number of Republicans voted for the bump stock ban, which passed 119-25, but against the other measures.

Some Democrats opposed the increase in purchasing age, which passed 88-56, but supported the other major provisions. There were members of both parties who took issue with the ban on high-capacity magazines (passed 79-66) but supported the bump stock ban, background checks (passed 83-61) and the increased purchasing age. 

How the Parties Voted on S. 55

Ban Bump Stocks Yes 79 29 5 6
No 0 23 2 0
Raise the Purchasing Age Yes 73 6 2 7
No 7 44 5 0
Mandate Universal Background Checks Yes 74 2 1 7
No 5 49 6 0
Ban High-Capacity Magazines Yes 71 2 0 7
No 9 49 7 0
Underlying Bill (Friday Vote) Yes 74 3 1 7
No 6 47 6 0
Exempt Gun Manufacturers Yes 63 49 6 5
No 18 1 0 2
State Buyback of Magazines and Bump Stocks Yes 2 41 4 0
No 78 9 3 7
Underlying Bill (Tuesday Vote) Yes 73 6 3 7
No 5 44 4 0

Source: Vermont Legislature

For his part, Keefe said he worried that requiring background checks for private sales would hurt law-abiding gun owners. He supported an unsuccessful amendment Friday that would have allowed law enforcement, in addition to federally licensed gun dealers, to conduct those checks — an option he thought “would have been a lot less costly and less inconvenient.”

Ultimately, Keefe said he backed the underlying bill on Tuesday, despite his reservations, because of what he heard from constituents over the weekend. While he received plenty of feedback from both sides, he was particularly surprised by “the energy and the passion” of S.55 supporters. “I heard from people I didn’t expect to who were advising me I should vote for this,” Keefe said. "I’m convinced that my constituents wanted me to vote for this."

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) had similar concerns about the background checks, although she supported the concept in principle. “To me, anyway, it’s different than a couch that you’re selling on Front Porch Forum,” she said.

Scheuermann voted against that provision and the magazine ban, which she deemed unenforceable. Still, she voted for the underlying bill on both days because, she explained, “I didn’t think that my concerns were enough to preclude my support for the overall bill.”

Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Chittenden) went the other way. Like Scheuermann, he supported the bump stock ban and the increase in purchasing age, but his opposition to the background checks and high-capacity magazine ban led him to oppose the bill. Had the amendment to allow background checks by law enforcement passed, he “probably would have supported the underlying bill,” Harrison said. “At the end of the day, I’m probably gonna get everybody upset with me.”

Even more popular than the bump stock ban was a provision approved Tuesday that would allow Vermont gun manufacturers to continue to produce high-capacity magazines. It was proposed in response to concerns that the legislation could put Century International Arms, which operates a plant in the town of Georgia, out of business. A broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats supported the amendment (passed 123-21), while Progressives and a smattering of Democrats opposed it.

Scheuermann and Keefe were two of six Republicans who ended up voting for the underlying legislation on Tuesday. The others were: Reps. Dennis Devereux (R-Mount Holly), Fred Baser (R-Bristol), Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) and Peter Fagan (R-Rutland). Three of them — Keefe, Devereux and Wright — switched from "nay" to "yea" to between Friday and Tuesday.

Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover) was one of six Democrats who voted against S.55. The others were Reps. Chip Conquest (D-Wells River), Daniel Noyes (D-Wolcott), David Potter (D-Rutland), Timothy Corcoran (D-Bennington) and Jay Hooper (D-Brookfield).

Young, who missed Friday’s vote due to a family emergency, said he supported the bump stock ban and the increase in purchasing age. But the Northeast Kingdom rep opposed the magazine ban provision, deeming it unenforceable, and the expansion of background checks.

Young, whose brother committed suicide with a gun, has spoken poignantly in the past about the need for certain restrictions on gun ownership. But he also represents a decidedly pro-gun district. “My voter contacts on this issue were 10 to one against,” Young said. “The clear majority of the people in my district that care about this were totally against it.”

How Every Member of the Vermont House Voted on S. 55 and Its Amendments

  Yes |   No |   Absent |   Not voting (The Speaker of the House does not vote)

Source: Vermont Legislature

Correction, March 29, 2018: Rep. Jay Hooper voted against S.55; Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan voted yes on the manufacturer exemption, and Rep. Harvey Smith voted for the bump stock ban. Due to a data glitch on our end, their votes were incorrectly recorded. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) voted for the underlying bill both days. An earlier version of this story misstated that.