With a 7-month-old strapped to her chest, Ann Braden stood at a Statehouse podium last May and urged the Vermont legislature to address gun safety. Invoking recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., the Brattleboro mother of two said Vermont “cannot afford to turn a blind eye” to gun violence.
“The governor likes to say that if everybody treated guns the way we do in Vermont, there wouldn’t be a problem. But there are lots of responsible gun owners in Connecticut and Colorado,” Braden told a small crowd of supporters wearing matching green T-shirts. “The thing about guns is, it just takes one irresponsible person and one split second to pull the trigger. We can’t afford to wait ’til we have our own mass casualty.”
As Braden spoke, harried lawmakers strode through the ornate Cedar Creek Room, heads down and minds on more immediate business. The legislature would adjourn in days, and every last piece of gun-related legislation had been shot to pieces months before.
Braden’s mission was hopeless, at least for the time being. But she pledged to carry on.
“This issue is not going away. And we are not going away. We are just getting started,” she told advocates and reporters. “We will be here next session, and we will be even bigger.”
Four months later, Braden says the group she cofounded, Gun Sense Vermont, has grown to more than 1000 members and is planning a far more serious and strategic push at the Statehouse this winter.
Rather than advocate for the most divisive approaches to gun control — such as bans on specific types of weapons and ammunition — the organization plans to push for measures Braden thinks have wider support. On its wish list are expanded background checks, tougher gun trafficking laws, a safer gun storage mandate and a state ban on felons possessing firearms.
Significantly, Braden says her group is planning to retain the A-list Montpelier lobbying firm Sirotkin & Necrason, which last year successfully pushed to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and to let physicians prescribe life-ending drugs for the terminally ill.
After yet another mass shooting just this week — this time at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. — Braden and her allies will have one more tragic episode to point to when they make their case.
“What I feel good about is that we’re putting forward something 85 percent of Vermonters support,” Braden says, referring to a February survey conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute. “It’s this middle-of-the-road approach. I think that politicians will feel OK — that this is something they can stand up for. Nobody will be committing political suicide over it.”
So Braden might hope.
But as Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) learned last January, leading the charge on gun control in Vermont can leave you in a perilous place. After introducing legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, Baruth found himself in the crosshairs of the state’s uncompromising gun-rights crowd. Five days later, he withdrew his bill under withering criticism.
Despite pledges from legislative leadership to consider other measures, hold hearings and form a “task force” to study the issue, the gun debate was over before it even began.
“Last time I feel like I went out sort of assuming there would be some support for what I wanted to do, and I was just wrong. Flat out. I was the only one who supported that bill,” Baruth says he recently told Gun Sense Vermont members. “So I told them I want to do it in a much smarter way next time. I want to see that there’s support out there.”
Baruth adds, “I just don’t think it’s productive if there are zero votes to go forward with something.”
Evan Hughes, a vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, says he doesn’t expect the political calculus to change next session — no matter how much lobbying Gun Sense does.
“I think the state is satisfied with the gun laws it has because they work for Vermont,” Hughes says, adding that the state’s political leaders “understand the logic of our positions.”
According to the Castleton poll, 75 percent of Vermonters believe that those purchasing firearms at gun shows should undergo federal background checks, while only 20 percent oppose the idea. Castleton found that slimmer majorities — 66 percent and 61 percent, respectively — favor banning the sale of high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.
But Hughes questions those results, saying, “I don’t think the Castleton poll was accurate.”
Whether it is or it isn’t, two top Democrats told Seven Days this week they have no interest in pursuing new gun laws this winter. Citing last week’s recall of two Colorado state senators who advocated for gun control, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) said Monday, “You really have to lay the groundwork outside of the legislature to get the public ready even before you start in the legislature.”
Though Braden might argue that’s precisely what her group is trying to do, Smith said emphatically, “I don’t think the issue is ready for legislation in 2014.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin, one of the state’s strongest gun-rights supporters, said Monday he’s not budging from his position that only the federal government can effectively address gun violence.
“I applaud their efforts, but my position hasn’t changed,” he said. “I believe we need a 50-state solution, and that’s the only thing that’s going to work.”
Given the passion surrounding the issue, KSE Partners lobbyist Todd Bailey, who is not involved in the debate, predicts gun-control efforts “will be the biggest issue we’ve seen in Vermont since civil unions.”
“Just like the effort to pass civil unions and eventually marriage equality, both sides in the gun debate know they’re the ones having their rights violated, and that makes for very contentious and interesting politics,” Bailey says.
Braden’s passion comes from Newtown, where her mother and stepfather live. It was there, on her way back from a gun control rally in D.C. last January, that she decided to get involved.
“That’s not a community where you think, ‘This place has a gun problem.’ If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere,” she says. “You can’t prevent all violence, but I feel like we have a responsibility to look at what we’re doing as a society and ask, ‘What are we doing?’”
Breaking Down Silos
Severe cases of politician-induced whiplash were reported throughout Chittenden County last Thursday.
That morning, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office announced that the Missile Defense Agency had selected Jericho’s Camp Ethan Allen as one of five finalists to host a massive new installation from which nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles could be shot down.
Leahy quickly made clear he vehemently opposed the idea. The so-called ground-based midcourse defense system, Leahy said, is a “monumental waste of money,” “technologically challenged” and doesn’t belong in Vermont.
In short order, the state’s top-elected officials were tripping over themselves to out-oppose the plan. Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) won top honors, calling the notion “absurd” and “the wrong location for a bad idea and dead on arrival.”
Guess we know where he stands!
That’s when the whiplash kicked in — at least, for those who’ve been following the protracted debate over whether to base 16 to 24 next-generation fighter jets two towns away from Jericho, at the Vermont Air National Guard’s South Burlington base.
For years, Leahy, Welch, Shumlin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have eagerly courted the F-35s, which would replace the Guard’s aging F-16s. Their rationale for supporting the basing?
Jobs, jobs and more jobs.
I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t know much about shooting down ICBMs. Heck, I couldn’t find my way out of a missile silo. But here’s one thing I do know: If the Pentagon built a $1 to $5 billion missile defense facility in Jericho — that’s how much Reuters estimates it’d cost — it’d be the biggest job creator in Vermont since Ben & Jerry figured out how to market ice cream to stoners.
Think about all that work for silo builders! And the guys who feed hamburgers to the silo builders! And, um, the guys who get to push the shiny red button!
So why do Vermont’s “fighting four” politicians support the one but not the other? We put the question directly to them.
“He has long been a critic of the strategic premise, the enormous cost and the troubled record of ballistic missile defense systems,” explained Leahy spokesman David Carle. “However, he and most Vermonters and most Americans understand there is a need for a national defense of our airspace and to protect our troops on the ground, and for an Air Force to handle those jobs.”
Going for the rhetorical gold again, Welch spokesman Ryan Nickel said, “The question for the congressman is, what is necessary for the national defense? A replacement for the aging F-16 fleet is necessary. A Reagan-era Star Wars fantasy is not.”
Of course, when F-35 opponents raise concerns about the cost of that plane’s development and whether it’ll meet the military’s needs, Vermont pols have one response: jobs. All other concerns — about noise, safety, necessity and reliability — are dismissed out of hand.
“Like it or not,” Sanders said in a statement last October, the F-35 is gonna get built.
“If the F-35 ends up not being located here, it will end up at a National Guard base in Florida or South Carolina,” Sanders continued. “I would rather it be here.”
Right. So tell me again why we’re not getting behind those missiles?
Vermont’s weekend television news war has officially begun. Earlier this month, WCAX-TV launched “The Weekend,” an hourlong newscast starting at 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Anchoring the show is Vermont native Julie Kelley, who returned to the Green Mountains after stints reporting in New York, Louisiana and Virginia. News director Anson Tebbetts says the CBS affiliate has hired five new staffers, including Kelley, to contribute to the show.
Not to be outdone, soon after WCAX announced its expansion plans this summer, WPTZ-TV unveiled its own weekend newscast, called “Weekend Today” — and beat its competition on air by a month. The program runs for two hours a day, starting at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and 6 a.m. on Sundays.
Two weeks ago, the NBC affiliate brought on Catherine “Cat” Janisko to become the show’s permanent anchor. Janisko is a recent graduate of Pennsylvania State University, where she covered the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal.
“The reaction we’ve gotten in the first few weeks now that we’ve had it on air has been unbelievably positive,” says WPTZ president and general manager Kyle Grimes. “The market was hungry for us to be in this time period.”
Separately, WCAX recently lost reporter Deanna LeBlanc to an NBC affiliate in Virginia Beach. She joined Channel 3’s Rutland bureau in September 2011 and began covering Burlington this January.
And as the Burlington Free Press’ Mike Donoghue first reported last week, WCAX has fired veteran reporter Matt Henson. He had been on leave from the station since he was arrested in March for allegedly groping a Lyndon State College student at a local bar and pinning her against a wall. Henson pled not guilty to the charges in April.*
*Update 2/13/15: The prosecutor permanently dismissed the charges against Matt Henson on April 9, 2014.
Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.