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Wait for It: Will Vermont Enact a Gun Waiting Period?

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs

When a bill is approved by the Vermont Senate and then gets stuck in the House, it's usually a sign of trouble. That's exactly what happened with S.169, which would require Vermonters to wait 24 hours before buying a handgun.

The legislation received final Senate approval on March 22 and quickly moved to the House Judiciary Committee, which took testimony and discussed the issue on April 2 and 3. That was a full four weeks ago.

"It's a quandary to me," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "They started to take testimony, and then they just stopped."

There are fewer than three weeks to go before the legislature's scheduled May 18 adjournment. The gun bill is nowhere to be seen on House Judiciary's schedule this week, and an outbreak of coyness has overtaken those responsible.

Sears is personally invested in the legislation. He opposed the original version, which would have created a 48-hour waiting period for purchasing any gun — and he broke a Senate committee logjam by writing the 24-hour/handgun-only compromise that has been waiting ... and waiting ... for any sort of action.

"I'm antsy, as well," said Rep. Martin Lalonde (D-South Burlington), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. "[House] leadership is dealing with it."

What is leadership doing? "That's above my pay grade," Lalonde said.

Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) is equally opaque when asked when the bill might again grace her schedule. "I don't know, but it's certainly a priority," she said. "I'm hoping to get it out [of committee]."

When asked if House leadership is holding up the bill, she replied, "I think you should ask leadership."

OK.

"The committee started digging into it and, for a while, members of the committee were going in a bunch of different directions," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "It reflected divisions in the rest of the body." Some support the bill, some want no part of it and some prefer a tougher version along the lines of the original Senate bill. "You want to know when a bill comes out of committee that there is support for it," Johnson added.

Senators and gun-control advocates were openly dismayed last week at the open-ended delay. Tough words were supposedly directed at House leadership behind closed doors. But by Friday, gun-control advocates began to feel some momentum. Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, even put her pessimism in the past tense: "I think leadership was having difficulties about moving the bill to the floor," she said.

Alyssa and Rob Black of Essex, whose son Andrew died by suicide last December only five hours after buying a handgun, emerged this year as strong advocates for a waiting period. As the bill appeared to stall, they returned to the Statehouse on Friday for a fresh round of lobbying. Afterward, they were hopeful.

"We're hearing that leadership is working very hard to get this done," said Rob. "They seem to be fully on board."

"Legislators are being very thoughtful, taking it to their districts," added Alyssa. "Now, hopefully, things will move forward."

There are still those who hope for more. The bill before House Judiciary, Rob said, "will definitely save lives." But the original Senate version, he and Alyssa believe, would save more. They cite Vermont Public Radio's massive study of gun deaths in Vermont between 2011 and 2017, which showed that nearly 90 percent were suicides — and long guns were a key contributor.

"There's a perception that it's a handgun issue," said Alyssa. "But if you look at the VPR list, you realize that one-third of [suicides] used a long gun. That information was not presented until the bill came to the House."

Lasher-Sommers agreed that the waiting period should apply to all guns and promised to continue the fight next year if necessary. "This issue isn't going away," she said. "We're not going away."

The Blacks don't share that sentiment. They transmuted their family's tragedy into activism, which imposes a heavy burden in public exposure and the private reliving of a most painful trauma. They sincerely hope they can help get the legislation across the finish line — but whatever happens this session, they plan to retire from public activism. "This is it," said Alyssa.

Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) has been the chief advocate of a waiting period bill throughout the session. He's been skeptical of House leaders' intentions but expressed "new optimism" on Friday. He pointed to a moment in last year's gun debate when House leaders stepped forward to support restrictions including universal background checks and a ban on gun purchases by those under 21. "They were courageous last year when it mattered the most," Baruth said. "In crunch time, the speaker showed courage. I hope she will again."

Perhaps, but Johnson is offering no promises and a fistful of uncertainties, as her answers here show:

Is the bill ready to proceed to the full House? "We're asking [our members] this week."

Is there enough support among the 102 Democratic and Progressive lawmakers to attain a simple majority — 76 votes? "That's what we're determining."

Are there really 26 or more Dems and Progs who would vote against the bill? "I'm not prepared to quantify that."

Johnson's caution may be frustrating, but the scars of 2018 are still fresh. "Some people got beaten up on social media last year in a very unpleasant way," she observed.

Baruth acknowledged that some lawmakers "thought we should go five years without mentioning firearms." But he feels quite the opposite: "We did something significant last year, but that doesn't mean we should stop."

Especially since Vermonters elected a much more liberal House in 2018, giving Dems and Progs a combined 102 seats out of 150 — enough, in theory, to override gubernatorial vetoes without any independent or Republican support. "We passed some pretty serious gun measures last year," said Rep. Selene Colburn (P/D-Burlington), a member of House Judiciary. "Now, with a supermajority in the House, I'm not sure what we're waiting for."

Johnson claimed that the deliberate pace is simply a normal part of the process. "This is something that happens in the second half of a session," Johnson said. "Each chamber starts with its own priorities. It's always harder the second half of the year."

That's true. But most of this year's uncertainty hangs over the House. Leadership in the Senate is moving more briskly on key bills that originated in the other chamber, including paid family leave, broadband expansion and boosting the state's home weatherization program.

House leaders often act as if their majority is razor-thin, not supersize. On the waiting period bill, Johnson spoke inclusively of "divisions in the rest of the body," not in her caucus. Last week, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) spoke in similar terms about full cannabis legalization. "I want to make sure we give everyone the opportunity to give input and get the most possible votes on the bill," she said.

That may be a good strategy when Democrats are faced with potential vetoes from Republican Gov. Phil Scott — but that may not be the case here. Scott has expressed skepticism about new gun legislation in general but has not taken a stand on this bill.

In their search for common ground, House leaders risk underutilizing their political capital.

Lawmakers are already on their way to an uninspiring performance on climate change, advancing incremental steps at a time when Vermont is embarrassingly behind on all of its climate action targets. The rest of the Democratic agenda hangs in the balance as the days grow short and adjournment approaches. Leadership continues to offer hope but no promises. If the 2019 session adjourns with major bills stuck in the process — or if the House fails to override gubernatorial vetoes — then liberal voters may rightfully wonder if they're getting a full return on their electoral investment.

Media Notes

If you picked up a copy of Sunday's Burlington Free Press, you saw a front-page story about Melissa Cohen, a young woman overcoming substance-abuse issues. One factor in her recovery process was getting a job as a barista at Healthy Living Market & Café.

And if you flipped the paper open to page three, you saw a companion article by Stan Ballard, a manager at Healthy Living. In it, Ballard touted his employer as "a company that exists to serve the community in which we live" and provides "an inclusive environment that thrives on positivity and people working towards being their personal best." He praised the staff, Cohen included, as "passionate about creating a positive atmosphere for guests to shop and people to work."

Sounds heavenly. But does the Ballard piece amount to giving news space to a potential advertiser? Sure looks like it.

Not true, according to Free Press executive editor Emilie Stigliani.

"There is no pay-to-play element here," she wrote in an email exchange. "We invited all employers [of profiled individuals] to write a column if they wished."

Stigliani asserted that the multistory series "is totally independent from advertising. I have not coordinated with advertising or given advertisers preference." In fact, she deliberately chose not to seek ideas of potential story subjects from employers because "it could create a dynamic where the employee feels pressure to participate," she wrote. "I wanted to make sure the people who participated raised their own hand to share their story."

The stories themselves are worthwhile in understanding people's experience of the recovery process. But the employer's point of view could have been included in the main story. That way, the Free Press would retain control over its content instead of running a self-serving essay from a local business. And there would be no reason for readers to question the paper's ethics.