On Thursday night, Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Ehlers expressed serious reservations about S.55, one of the three gun bills that became law in Vermont this year.
"There are elements of S.55 that aren't going to make things safer," he said, and added that the legislation puts "Vermonters in the position of feeling that they are breaking the law."
His words were very similar to those of Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), a Democratic write-in candidate for governor and strong supporter of gun rights. "All we did was turn law-abiding citizens into criminals," Rodgers said in an August 2 debate sponsored by VTDigger.org and Burlington's Channel 17.
S.55 included four separate measures related to gun ownership. It required background checks for most gun sales, prohibited most sales to people under age 21, and banned sales of large-capacity ammunition magazines and also of bump stocks, which allow guns to fire faster.
Ehlers made the statement during a televised debate posted online by Vermont PBS. The other three Democrats on the August 14 primary ballot — Christine Hallquist, Brenda Siegel and Ethan Sonneborn — gave full-throated support to this year's gun bills and also advocated for a ban on assault weapons, which Ehlers opposes.
In the debate, Ehlers gave total support to two of the three gun bills that became law:S.221, which allows judges to issue "extreme risk orders" against individuals who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others; and H.422, which allows police to confiscate firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic violence. Ehlers did not specify which parts of S.55 he found objectionable.
There was more clarity in a July 30 article in the Burlington Free Press, which reported that Ehlers "disagrees with the magazine restriction, calling it a burden to law enforcement and an ineffective measure."
But in a July 31 debate on WCAX-TV, Ehlers expressed support for S.55 without any reservations.
Campaign spokesperson Sarah Anders, in an emailed response, said that Ehlers "does generally support the bills."
In his public statements, however, Ehlers sometimes supports the bills entirely and sometimes "generally."
In early April, when Gov. Phil Scott was preparing to sign all three bills in a public ceremony on the Statehouse steps, Ehlers' camp had some trouble articulating his stance. "We're still talking through things ourselves and with various stakeholders," said campaign manager Theo Fetter.
When asked for clarification, Anders replied that "[Ehlers] supports all of the bills."
No "generally" about it.
It seems as though Ehlers is either trying to have it both ways or is walking a very fine line with occasional stumbles.
It is a tough issue for him. As a candidate, he is trying to appeal to the progressive wing of the Democratic electorate, who overwhelmingly favor gun restrictions. But in Ehlers' years as a clean-water advocate, his base has included both progressive environmentalists and supporters of Second Amendment absolutism.
Ehlers' temporizing hasn't scored him any points with Gun Owners of Vermont, the gun-rights group that sees no distinction between Ehlers, Hallquist, Siegel and Sonneborn, labeling them all as "Extremely Anti-Gun" while describing Rodgers as "Strong Pro-Second Amendment."
"James is a good guy. I consider him a friend," said Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont. "But his statements and our conversations have shown him to be anti-gun."
Cutler said that he spoke extensively with Ehlers earlier in the campaign. "He wanted us to sit down with the Gun Sense people and compromise," Cutler said, referring to the gun-control organization Gun Sense Vermont. This idea went nowhere, and Cutler expressed a bit of sadness at Ehlers' stance.
"I'd love to sit down with him and change his mind," Cutler said.