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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Burlington Clears Path For Gun Control Debate In Statehouse

With the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., still fresh on lawmakers’ minds, Linda Waite-Simpson figured the time was right last year for a debate about gun control here in Vermont.

The Essex lawmaker focused on what she thought were reasonable concessions – things like background checks on gun sales, and bringing state law in line with federal statutes. But as Waite-Simpson would quickly learn, the Vermont Statehouse is bleak territory for advocates of gun control.

“And it was a truly ugly; it was truly an ugly experience,” she says, alluding to some of the hate mail she received in response. “And, you know, as the session wore on, it became clear that they weren’t going to even take up the bill or have hearing on it.”

It’s been a year since Waite-Simpson’s bill died in the committee process. But she and other longtime proponents of gun control say a high-profile vote in city of Burlington has changed the game. 

“Up until now what you had were attempts to move bills that did not have the support of voters. They had the support of a representative or a state senator here or there, and they were very lonely representatives or state senators,” says Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth.

"Now you have the state's largest municipality voting overwhelmingly on three charter changes. So I think it guarantees there will at least be a debate." -Chittenden County Sen. Philip Baruth

Baruth found himself in one of those lonely positions last year, when he  introduced a bill that would have banned certain automatic weapons. The legislation generated well-attended rallies from gun-rights advocates, and Baruth, sensing almost no support inside the Statehouse, withdrew his bill almost immediately after introducing it.

But he says Burlington’s quest for legislation alters the landscape, and shows evidence of a grassroots movement that no single lawmaker alone could credibly lay claim to.

“Now you have the state’s largest municipality voting overwhelmingly on three charter changes,” Baruth says. “So I think it guarantees there will at least be a debate.”

The three charter changes passed in the state’s largest city on Town Meeting Day need approval from lawmakers before they can go into effect. And while that’s almost certainly not going to happen, this year at least, House Speaker Shap Smith says the debate will happen.

“You know there is a real tension between traditional views about sportsmen and hunting and this notion of gun safety, and I think that that’s a conversation that Vermonters really need to have,” Smith says.

Smith and other key lawmakers say that with less than two months remaining in the 2014 session, there isn’t time enough year to have that debate. Smith also doesn’t seem amenable to allowing a town-by-town approach to gun laws. And in fact state statute currently prohibits municipalities from enforcing their own restrictions on firearms ownership.

Theproposed Burlington  ordinances give police the power to seize guns when there is reasonable suspicion of domestic violence, ban firearms on the property of institutions where liquor is served and would require all guns to be under lock and key when not in possession of their owner.

Senate President John Campbell says that in light of the voter mandate in Burlington, lawmakers may contemplate new statewide regulations on gun sales.

“I know the (Shumlin) administration, they feel this should be a 50-state or federal issue,” Campbell says. “However there are certain aspects of guns and weapons and people who are able to buy them that certainly come within our purview.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin isn’t the only political force beating back efforts at gun control in Vermont. The NRA’s state-level affiliate here has thus  successfully lobbied to squelch even a committee vote on various gun bills.

And with some of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation, opponents of gun control say there’s really no problem to solve.

But Ann Braden, head of Gun Sense Vermont, which pushed for the charter changes, says her organization is prepared to give political cover to lawmakers willing to buck the gun-rights organizations. She says she’d be happy to see lawmakers scrap the charter changes in favor of statewide laws.

“Looking at this next election in November, you know, our plan is to be a presence in this election, going door to door for people, be doing phone banking for people, and, you know, making it clear that we have their backs,” Braden says.

Gun Sense Vermont has hired a prominent Statehouse lobbying firm, the Necrason Group, to help it navigate the legislative process.

Baruth says that Gun Sense Vermont ought to have a ready base of support in House lawmakers that represent Burlington, and in senators that represent Chittenden County. And he says those legislators could make for a powerful bloc in Montpelier.

“Burlington has what I think of as an A-team of representatives,” Baruth says. “We’re in a position at the very least not to be ignored, and I think as elected representatives for our county, we should be pushing for things that come from our municipalities.”

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