For decades gun control has been the third rail of Vermont politics — but almost overnight that appears to have changed — and recent events in Vermont and beyond have put gun legislation on a fast track in Montpelier.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott had been one of the most ardent opponents of new gun laws in Vermont. Even last Thursday — the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida — Scott said he thought Vermont’s laws were fine just the way they are.
“I have thought for quite some time that Vermont was immune to this type of thing,” Scott said.
Then came an incident in Rutland County late last Thursday, when police, acting on a tip, arrested a man who was allegedly planning to inflict mass casualties at Fair Haven Union High School.
“It wasn’t a question of if it was going to happen— it was just a question of which day,” Scott says. “And that has a way of rocking your very core.”
Suddenly, Gov. Phil Scott is leading the charge in Montpelier for new restrictions on gun ownership.
And on Thursday morning in Montpelier — a week later — he unveiled an “action plan” that includes passage of gun legislation before Town Meeting Day.
“I have a huge responsibility as governor to keep Vermonters as safe as possible, and this is an area, regardless of the political fallout, that I think is the path forward that will keep Vermonters safer,” Scott says.
Scott came out in support of several pieces of legislation on Thursday, including one that would allow police to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of a domestic assault.
He’s also throwing his weight behind a measure that would let police seek a court order to seize firearms from anyone they believe is dangerous.
Scott says he wants to consider raising the age at which someone can purchase a gun to 21, with some exceptions for military personnel, law enforcement, and people who complete an accredited gun safety course.
And if lawmakers end up passing legislation that would require background checks for private gun sales — commonly known as universal background checks — Scott says he’d “probably sign it.”
The future of the background checks measure was floundering in the Vermont Senate as recently as a couple weeks ago.
A pledge from Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe on Thursday reflects just how dramatically the political environment has changed in recent days.
“I … want to make very clear today that before the end of next week, there will be an up or down vote on the Senate floor on universal background checks,” Ashe says.
Ashe made the pledge during a joint press conference with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and Attorney General TJ Donovan. Asked to explain the new urgency behind gun legislation, Donovan became emotional.
“As a parent, you can’t read or see these images, and not think about your own family and the folks that you grew up with,” Donovan said.
The future of the background check legislation in Montpelier is far from certain, however.
Mitzi Johnson said on Thursday that, if the measure passes in the Senate, she can guarantee it will get a vote on the House floor this year.
But: “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Johnson says.
And while many gun control advocates are calling for a ban on sales of the high-powered, semi-automatic weapon used in the Parkland shooting — including the more than 50 students who rallied at the Statehouse Thursday — neither legislative leadership nor the governor seem to be pushing the idea. Scott, in fact, says he opposes any such ban.
“It’s not as much the gun itself and the caliber, it’s what’s behind it,” Scott says. “So from my perspective, I don’t think that solves anything.”
Scott and Johnson say they are open to restrictions on magazine capacity.
Scott also called for $5 million in new spending Thursday on school security measures.
He says schools could use to money to hire law enforcement officers to guard school premises, install camera systems, improve security at school entrances, or other capital projects.
Scott says he’s still identifying where the money would come from, but that some of it would likely come from state reserves.
While gun control advocates have made their presence known at several events in Montpelier this week, gun rights organizations are also lobbying their elected officials.
“I think emotions are running very high right now, and I understand the need to do something,” says Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
But Bradley says the universal background checks bill will complicate — and add expenses to — the lives of gun owners without delivering any public safety benefits.
At the press conference held by Ashe, Johnson, Donovan and Zuckerman Thursday, Bradley tried to interject with a question. They quickly shut him off, saying they would field inquiries only from reporters.
Bradley said later he wanted to know if they “can they cite even one crime, just one, that would have been stopped [if universal background checks] had been law?”
Bradley says their response would have revealed the emptiness of the legislative gesture, because the answer, he says, is “zero.”
Bradley has plenty of legislative allies on the background check issue. Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sears says he’s spent years studying gun reform proposals.
“Frankly, if I thought that background checks would do anything to help avoid a situation like the one down there, I would vote for it in a second,” Sears says.
Sears, however, notes that the alleged shooter in Parkland passed a background check. He says guns used in other mass shootings have also been purchased through legal avenues, by people who successfully passed background checks, which is why he opposes universal background checks.
Instead, Sears says his committee is focused on a bill that would allow police to get a court order to seize a firearm from someone they suspect is dangerous.
Gun control advocates say they won’t abide inaction this year, however.
Emma Harter, a junior at Montpelier High School, was among the students who showed up at the Statehouse Thursday to call on lawmakers to pass the background checks legislation.
“We are done waiting for politicians to decide how they will address tragedies once they have already happened,” Harter said.
Lawmakers and the governor now have a few months to decide how they will address the tragedy that happened last week in Florida, and how they’ll prevent something similar from happening in Vermont.