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Board Wants Burlington to Treat Gun Violence as a 'Public Health Emergency'


Published November 4, 2022 at 6:22 p.m.

Burlington City Hall - FILE: ALICIA FREESE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Alicia Freese ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington City Hall
The Burlington Board of Health is calling on city leaders to address the “root causes” of surging gun violence.

Members of the board authored a resolution this month that formally requests that the Burlington City Council develop a broad public health response to the problem that encompasses schools, mental health, domestic violence and racial equity. The resolution asks the city to create an office of gun violence prevention to spearhead the work.

“The increasing gun violence in our city and in our nation is a public health emergency,” board chair Celia Bird said in an interview on Friday.

The Burlington Board of Health is a five-member advisory group appointed by the city council. Members approved the three-page resolution at their October 13 meeting. City councilors will take it up on Monday, when they will likely refer the resolution to a subcommittee for further discussion, City Council President Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) said.

The city has recorded 51 instances of criminal gunfire since 2020, a sharp rise from an average of two incidents per year between 2012 and 2019. The increase, not unique to Burlington, is multifaceted, but it is having an outsize effect on the city’s youth of color and immigrant communities, as Seven Days detailed in this week's cover story.
Bird, an advanced practice nurse practitioner who works at Champlain College, said the city stands the best chance at reducing the violence if it looks to approaches grounded in public health.

“Our recommendations are evidence based,” she said.

In addition to creating a new municipal office dedicated to gun violence prevention, the resolution lists eight other steps the city council should take, including partnering with schools to promote prevention, providing public guidance on safe storage of firearms and improving data collection.

The resolution also calls for the governor’s office and state lawmakers to empower Burlington and other municipalities to craft their own gun control ordinances. The board wants the city council to pressure lawmakers to approve a set of gun-control charter changes that Burlington voters endorsed in 2014.
The charter changes, which require state leaders’ sign-off, would ban guns from bars, require safe storage of firearms and allow police to seize guns following incidents of domestic violence.
The resolution also encourages the legislature to repeal a state law that prohibits local governments from regulating firearms. Such state statutes are commonly referred to as preemption laws.

Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, advocated for the city charter changes in 2014 and has pushed for new state and federal gun legislation during his tenure. He supports eliminating the preemption law, his office said on Friday. Weinberger said in a statement that he plans to lobby lawmakers on gun violence prevention next year.

The gun control lobbying group GunSense Vermont is also pushing to eliminate the preemption statute and has been in touch with city officials about it, Paul said.
Gun violence prevention initiatives are not included in the latest lobbying agenda for the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, according to executive director Ted Brady. Member towns voted on the policy platform at the organization’s annual meeting in October. The issue of gun preemption law didn’t come up, Brady wrote in an email.

Samantha Sheehan, a mayoral spokesperson, said Weinberger is “very supportive” of the municipal prevention work described in the board of health resolution, noting that the city recently funded a $20,000 request from the Vermont New American Advisory Council to conduct outreach among the city’s immigrant communities.

Bird said the board of health sees municipal leadership as crucial to an effective public health response. The city will need to identify new programs and regularly assess whether they’re working — tasks a gun violence prevention office could oversee.

“That requires coordination,” she said. “This office has the potential to do that.”