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Firing Line: Gun Bills on Fast Track in Vermont


Published March 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 14, 2018 at 1:30 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Dick Sears

The Vermont legislature adjourned for Town Meeting week on the cusp of passing major legislation on guns. Lawmakers will return on Monday with multiple bills atop their agenda; some may be sent to Gov. Phil Scott by the end of next week.

And there may be further legislation in the works. Positions continue to evolve, and politicians' long-standing reluctance on gun issues continues to erode.

It's hard to overstate how exceptional this moment in history truly is. It was only three weeks ago that a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., was followed two days later by the arrest of a Vermont teenager on charges of plotting a rampage of his own at Fair Haven Union High School. The latter sent shock waves through the state and its political establishment.

You'd have to go back four decades to find a moment when Vermont lawmakers responded with such urgency to an event. In 1981, two teenage boys — Louis Hamlin and Jamie Savage — brutally attacked two 12-year-old girls in Essex Junction. One died, and the other survived to testify against her assailants.

On the day of the attack, Hamlin was 16; Savage, 15. At the time, Vermont law barred prosecution of anyone under 16 as an adult. Hamlin received a life sentence, but Savage could only be detained until he turned 18. The public outcry was overwhelming.

"That got governor [Richard] Snelling to bring the legislature back" for a special session, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) recalled. "There was extreme pressure on the legislature. It resulted in a complete rewrite of Vermont's juvenile laws."

Today, as then, the shock of a crime and an outpouring of public sentiment has rewritten priorities in Montpelier. Five separate gun-related measures seem destined to become law. Before Fair Haven, perhaps one or two — if any — might have done so.

Last week, the Vermont Senate approved two bills containing three separate gun-control measures. S.221 would allow judges to issue "extreme risk orders" when individuals appear to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. S.55 would require universal background checks for gun purchases and raise the minimum legal age for buying guns to 21. Those two bills land in the House next week, and both are poised for quick action.

Sears has promised to expedite a House bill, H.422, through his committee within days. That bill would require the seizure of firearms when a person is cited or arrested for domestic violence. No prior court action required.

Scott has said he would sign all those bills, although he would like to see conditions on raising the purchasing age that the legislature may not include. Along with legislative leaders, he also favors a ban on bump stocks — devices that increase the speed with which semiautomatic weapons can fire rounds. Such a ban is the purpose of H.876, which is now before a House committee.

And that may not be all. "We're going to be talking about limiting magazine size," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "How many bullets do you have to be able to shoot in a row before changing the cartridge?"

Scott is at least open to the idea. His chief counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that defining a reasonable limit on magazines is "a difficult area, but that shouldn't be an impediment to doing it." She said the same about a concept that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago: a ban on assault weapons. "We are willing to discuss, but we need a specific proposal," she said.

Those kinds of statements can be useful political cover for avoiding tough decisions, but in this case Scott seems sincerely open. "I've come a long way," he added, and he's still traveling down that road. How far he will go, and how far we all will go, remains to be seen.

Scott also has to keep watch on his right flank. He recently issued a statement, posted on Facebook by the Chittenden County Republican Party, affirming his strong support for the Second Amendment and framing his newfound support for gun legislation amid a laundry list of other policy ideas. But he maintained the need to balance gun rights and public safety, a stance that would have been hard to imagine in a pre-Fair Haven world.

One other thing for elected officials to ponder. "The high school students who are being so vocal right now, they're about to be voting this fall," said Johnson. "And they have never known a time without regular school shootings. They were born after Columbine."

Remember when the Columbine, Colo., school shooting was an unbelievable shocker? That took place fewer than 20 years ago, but it seems like another universe entirely. In this new universe, the perpetual status quo on gun issues in Vermont is suddenly gone. The parameters of the new reality have yet to be established.

Dome Work

One of Vermont's most frequently photographed landmarks will be hidden from public view for much of the year. During a $2 million renovation project from May until November, the Statehouse's golden dome will be covered by scaffolding and a scrim — a protective fabric that will catch any debris that comes loose.

And, yes, the work includes a fresh new coat of gold leaf. Actual solid gold.

What? you may be thinking. Our tax dollars are paying for gold?

"People have always said things like that," observed David Schütz, Vermont state curator and keeper of Statehouse lore. "And we would point out, well, how much do you think it costs to have people up there working? That's the real cost."

He's right. Of the $2 million tab, only about $200,000 is budgeted for gold leaf. Regilding the entire dome will require less than half a bar of gold — 12 pounds or so. The stuff is astonishingly thin.

And durable. The dome was last regilded in 1976. The treatment was expected to last 20 years, and it's held up more than twice as long. When applied properly, gold leaf is remarkably tenacious. "It's good value," said Buildings and General Services Commissioner Chris Cole.

He did offer a historically correct alternative, with tongue firmly in cheek. Before 1906, he noted, the dome was covered in red tile. "So if we wanted to be historic, we could do red, maybe with black checks," he said. "Kind of the Johnson Woolen Mills look."

Just kidding.

Sometime in early May, contractors will build a scaffolding around the dome. "We'll tie it down through the windows," explained project manager Tricia Harper. "Then the entire scaffolding will be enclosed with a scrim."

The first job is to remove the current gold leaf and undercoats, revealing the copper dome beneath. According to Schütz, there are no real structural issues but, he added, "We have leaks in the copper. It's the original copper from 1859, so I think we can say this is definitely one of the oldest roofs in Vermont. We'll be working to make it weathertight once again."

After that, three undercoats will be applied, and then the precious gold leaf.

There's one other key element: replacement of the 14-foot-high statue that stands atop the dome, depicting a robed woman holding a sheaf of wheat. She is commonly called Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. Schütz prefers the simple "Agriculture," since the statue was meant to express a concept, not a particular deity. Whatever you call her, she's in an advanced state of decay. The state will soon seek bids from wood sculptors who can fashion a replacement.

Thinking about canceling a Statehouse visit because the dome won't be visible? You might want to think again. The interior will be unaffected, and that scaffolding will be a sight to behold. Plus, Schütz and his colleagues are making plans to engage visitors. Those could include watching the sculptor at work, an interpretive display explaining the project and showcasing the exterior and rarely seen interior of the dome, and cameras mounted inside the scaffolding with a live feed to monitors in the lobby.

So now the big question: What happens to the old gold leaf?

It belongs to the state, and it is, after all, "a historic artifact," as Cole observed. Some of it might be melted down for reuse; some is destined for a historical display. But some of it could help raise money for future restorations.

The State of Georgia did just that. After a regilding, flecks of the old gold were embedded in Lucite blocks and offered for sale. Schutz says the idea "has already been discussed."

Seems like a natural.

Brad Blue

Remember Brad Peacock, the progressive independent candidate for U.S. Senate? He's running for the seat now held by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in part because he'd like Sanders to leave the Senate and run for president in 2020.

It's a long-odds proposition at best. But the odds got even longer when he was rejected by ActBlue, the online fundraising platform that enables small donations to Democratic candidates. And the organization's rationale seems a little bit fishy.

ActBlue boasts of having processed more than $2 billion in donations since its founding in 2004, including massive amounts of money for Sanders. The New York Times says ActBlue "has led the movement toward small online political donations."

Seems like a natural fit for a young, progressive upstart, right?

Well, no.

Peacock's inquiry sparked an email exchange with ActBlue customer support specialist Makaila McPhee. She initially turned him down by explaining that "ActBlue has a strict policy of listing all Democrats in a race and not listing independent candidates that are running against Democrats."

Someone should tell McPhee that there are two declared Democrats in the race: Jon Svitavsky and Folasade Adeluola. Sanders is an independent who rejects all party labels. By her reasoning, ActBlue should delist Sanders immediately.

When Peacock sought clarification, he got a fresh answer. "In Democratic primaries, we will list all candidates; however, those rules do not apply for independent candidates," McPhee responded. "In very rare circumstances we will ... list independent candidates. Sen. Sanders is one of those unique cases."

McPhee implied that if Peacock ran as a Democrat, he might qualify. But no promises: "If you do ... decide to run as a Democrat, please let us know, and we can continue the discussion!" she wrote.

Certainly, ActBlue is free to make its own decisions. But it occupies a valuable piece of real estate in the landscape of liberal fundraising. Exclusion is a big deal for a candidate such as Peacock and more than a little ironic for an organization whose mission is fostering the grassroots.

ActBlue makes its money by assessing a 3.95 percent fee on every donation. Sanders, with his legion of small donors, is a yuuuge moneymaker for ActBlue. In 2017, according to Federal Elections Commission filings, donations for Sanders netted ActBlue more than $100,000. Its rejection of Peacock smells like preferential treatment for a valued client.

I'd love to hear ActBlue's response, but the organization failed to answer requests for comment.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Firing Line"

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