Vermont's Gun-Control Record Scrutinized After Massacres in Texas, NY | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont's Gun-Control Record Scrutinized After Massacres in Texas, NY


Published May 26, 2022 at 6:45 p.m.
Updated August 2, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.

Governor Phil Scott signing gun control bills in 2018 amid a mix of applause and jeers - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Governor Phil Scott signing gun control bills in 2018 amid a mix of applause and jeers
Gov. Phil Scott says the gun control laws Vermont passed in 2018 in response a foiled plot to attack a high school in Fair Haven are a possible model for the nation following this week’s massacre of 19 children and two adults at a Texas elementary school.

But some Vermont lawmakers and gun safety advocates note that Scott has opposed adopting further measures since 2018 — such as closing the so-called Charlestown loophole and establishing a waiting period for purchases. They say the state could do much more to protect its residents.
Over the objections of many gun owners, Scott signed into law what he characterized at the time as “the most comprehensive gun safety measures in our state’s history.” These included raising the purchase age to 21, requiring universal background checks, prohibiting the purchase of bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, and keeping guns out of the hands of those deemed an “extreme risk" to themselves or others.

Following the shooting on Tuesday in which an 18-year-old gunman used an assault-style rifle he had purchased to kill 19 fourth graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, Scott called for the country to follow Vermont’s lead.

“It’s time for us to come together as a nation to better protect the most innocent among us — our kids,” Scott said in a statement. “In Vermont, we showed you can take meaningful action on common sense gun safety measures to protect our citizens — upholding both their safety and their rights. It’s time for the federal government to take similar action.”

Scott, a Republican, did not go so far as to tell voters to be sure to elect members to Congress who would ensure action is taken.

“Campaigns and elections are about many issues, and the Governor has never advocated that people be judged with any single-issue litmus test,” spokesperson Jason Maulucci told Seven Days, adding that it leads to polarized politics.

The Vermont laws passed in 2018 were discussed Wednesday night on CNN's "Don Lemon Tonight" as an example of what could be done to strengthen gun laws in America.

The cry for greater federal gun control measures has been widespread following the Texas massacre, which occurred just 10 days after a white gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., in an attack authorities say was fueled by racial hatred.

An 18-year-old can't purchase weapons in Vermont. But a 21-year-old can, with few restrictions,  Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said Thursday.

“You shouldn’t be able to walk into a store and walk out with enough firepower to kill 100 people,” Baruth said.

He noted that since 2018, Scott has blocked further legislation. “None of us is off the hook,” Baruth said. “What we’ve done should not be used as an excuse to turn away from further safety measures.”

The governor has said he sees no need for further state action.

Some data suggests that gun deaths in Vermont dropped after the 2018 laws were passed, and national media have taken note. CNN reported that total gun deaths — including suicides — fell sharply in Vermont in 2019. According to  federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Vermont had 82 total gun deaths in 2018, but that figure fell to 67 in 2019, an 18 percent drop. (Most of those were suicides.) The center reported Vermont had the 10th lowest gun death rate in the nation in 2019. 

However, linking a one-year drop in gun deaths to changes in gun laws is speculative. The following year, 2020, total gun deaths in the state rose right back up to 76. The CDC has not yet released 2021 data.

Gun safety advocates in Vermont agree that federal legislation is badly needed, but also contend that far more should be done at the state level to prevent gun deaths.

“Where is the urgency to prevent the next Fair Haven from happening?” asked Conor Casey, executive director of GunSense Vermont, noting Scott's opposition to further legislation.

He noted that Scott vetoed a bill in 2019 that would have created a 24-hour waiting period for firearm purchases. The bill was aimed at creating a cooling-off period that might discourage impulsive acts, especially suicides.

Scott also vetoed a bill that would have assured people couldn't buy firearms unless they passed a federal background check. The bill would have closed the so-called “Charleston loophole" that allows people to buy guns if the Federal Bureau of Investigation hasn't finished a required background check within three days. That was how a 21-year-old white supremacist was able to buy a gun that he used to kill nine members of a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Instead of closing the loophole, Scott agreed to extend the period to seven days and signed a bill this session that did just that. The bill also banned guns from hospitals.

While the law is an improvement, Baruth said, background checks that take longer often do because there are more issues to consider, such as criminal convictions. That means some people who shouldn't have access to guns might still get them after a week.

“Nobody should wink at the fact that the Charleston Loophole was left open deliberately,” Baruth said.

He acknowledged, however, that the waiting period wouldn't help in a situation such as the one in Texas, where the gunman  was able to pass the background check and purchase two AR-15-style rifles from a licensed dealer right after he turned 18.

Vermont could tighten its laws further, but without larger legislative majorities in the legislature to overcome vetoes, the effort is “a non-starter,” Casey said.

“We need a bigger voice or nothing more is going to happen here,” he said.

GunSense Vermont called on Vermonters to get more involved by educating themselves on the issue, volunteering and contacting lawmakers. The group is advocating for a waiting period for gun sales, to take guns away from those convicted of domestic violence and to require that guns be safety stored if there are kids in the house under 18.
© Dave Nelson | - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • © Dave Nelson |
“Robb Elementary School could be any school in Vermont. Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo could be your local grocery store," the group wrote. "The time for passive activism is over. All of us are responsible for taking action and demanding change."

House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said she planned to work this summer on helping candidates who support stronger gun control measures, and on “a legislative agenda that’s ready to go at the beginning of our session next January.”

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