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Aiming Low

On gun laws, Vermont legislators avoid the line of fire


Published January 26, 2011 at 11:57 a.m.


The recent gunshot suicides of two Vermont teens have apparently failed to persuade politicians to rethink the state’s gun laws, which are considered to be among the most permissive in the nation.

State Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson says there’s “zero chance” her bill promoting firearm security will gain a hearing this session in Montpelier. “I’d just like to start a conversation about safe storage,” says the Essex Junction Democrat, one of the few legislators willing to risk political retaliation by gun-rights advocates. “But even that’s not possible.”

In fact, Waite-Simpson says she’s received emails urging her to move out of Vermont because she sponsored the bill, which was prompted by the 2009 suicide of a constituent’s teenage son.

The proposal would require state’s attorneys to investigate the storage circumstances of a gun in the event it was used to kill or wound a person. The weapon 15-year-old Aaron Xue used to kill himself outside Essex High School 21 months ago had not been properly secured in the home of one of the boy’s friends, Waite-Simpson notes. Lax storage may also have played a part in the handgun suicide earlier this month of Mount Mansfield Union High School student Connor Menning, 15, as well as in the death of Leah Short, 16, a Brattleboro Union High School sophomore who shot herself with a type of gun that has not been specified by police.

“Lawmakers in Vermont are very passive,” says Ge Wu, the mother of Aaron Xue. “There are some who care about children’s safety, but there are more who care most about their own political safety.”

The recent suicides in Jericho and Dummerston made her “at first very sad and then so very angry,” adds Wu, a professor at the University of Vermont. “There will be more of these deaths,” she predicts.

The members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are clearly reluctant to talk about gun issues. In response to questions from Seven Days, all three issued general statements through their press secretaries.

A spokesman for Bernie Sanders says the senator is “more than aware” of the teen suicides and the carnage in Arizona in which a congressional colleague was shot in the head. “Vermont continues to be one of the safest states in the country,” the Sanders statement declares, noting that the senator is focused on economic issues. “In terms of guns,” Sanders’ spokesman adds, “the senator has long believed that, everything being equal, gun decisions are best made at the state level, not in Washington.”

Although the country’s leading gun-control advocacy gives Sanders a favorable rating — the highest among Vermont’s three D.C. delegates — in part for his crucial vote to ban assault weapons, the senator voted last year to allow guns to be checked in baggage on Amtrak trains and to permit visitors to national parks to carry loaded weapons. Sen. Patrick Leahy voted for both those initiatives as well.

Leahy’s spokesman says in an email message that the senator has not had a chance this session to discuss gun-control proposals with his colleagues. A lifelong gun owner, Leahy enjoys target shooting on his tree farm in Middlesex, his press secretary adds, noting “he often speaks protectively of Vermont’s right to make its own decisions on gun issues.”

Congressman Peter Welch agrees with his colleagues’ state’s-rights spin on the issue, but the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rates him lowest of the three Vermonters in Congress. “Vermont has a proud tradition of hunting and sporting — and a legacy of responsible gun ownership,” Welch said through a spokesman.

The same statement added that Welch “will be reviewing” New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy’s (D-NY4) bill to ban the big-volume ammunition magazines used in the massacres in Tucson, Virginia Tech and Columbine High School. McCarthy’s husband was shot dead on a commuter train in 1993.

Soon after he became Burlington’s mayor in 2006, Bob Kiss indicated a willingness to talk about regulating handguns in Vermont. The comments drew an outraged response from gun-rights activists, and Kiss has not spoken about the issue since. But the mayor did say this week that “we should be having a conversation” on Waite-Simpson’s bill, which he supports.

Another well-known Vermont politician with a Progressive pedigree opposes the legislation, however. Washington County State Sen. Anthony Pollina, who gets an “A” rating from Gun Owners of Vermont, does favor having a conversation — but on the causes of teen suicides, not the role that guns may play in them. “I don’t believe in creating laws in knee-jerk reaction to recent events,” Pollina says in reference to the two teen suicides. “If teens really want to harm themselves, they’ll find a way to do it,” he adds.

Bob Williamson, Vermont coordinator of the New England Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, objects to Pollina’s view, insisting that “means do matter.” Someone who uses a gun to attempt suicide has a 90 percent chance of succeeding — higher than for most other methods, Williamson says.

Ed Cutler, legislative director of Gun Owners of Vermont, agrees with Pollina, suggesting, “Locking up guns isn’t going to make anybody safer.” Vermont constitutes “an extremely safe firearms society,” Cutler adds. “Literally thousands of kids out there have access to guns,” he notes. “Sometimes things happen.”

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggest that self-inflicted gun violence may not be as rare in Vermont as Cutler and similarly minded advocates argue. A total of 17 Vermonters aged 15-19 killed themselves with firearms between 1999 and 2007, the latest year for which CDC numbers are available. That works out to a per-capita rate far higher than that in neighboring Massachusetts, which the Legal Community Against Violence claims has the third-strictest gun laws in the country. California ranks first in this group’s ratings, while Vermont ranks 48th, with only Idaho and Arizona judged to have more lenient gun laws.

At least a few prominent Vermonters are taking on the gun lobby. Former governor Madeleine Kunin, for example, serves on the advisory board of Citizens for Safer Vermont Children, a group formed last year to rally support for Waite-Simpson’s bill. The group is led by Ge Wu, who points out that 28 states have already adopted proposals similar to the one that she says could have saved the life of her son.