BRATTLEBORO—It’s been a little more than six months since a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 20 students and six teachers dead.
The shock, outrage, and fear that the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre generated seemed destined to ignite a national re-examination of laws regulating firearms.
However, in that time, there has been no movement in Congress and no movement in Montpelier to strengthen gun laws.
Ann Braden, a mother of two from Brattleboro, wants to change this.
Earlier this year, she formed a group called GunSenseVT (www.gunsensevt.org), whose goal is to get Vermont’s lawmakers to toughen the state’s gun laws.
The group held a vigil last Saturday night on the Common. Approximately 50 people attended, including a half-dozen anti-gun control supporters who listened to the speakers at the vigil and taped their remarks, according to witnesses.
Braden said she’s not anti-gun or anti-hunting. She just wants to make sure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands.
The Newtown shooting hit home for Braden. Her mother, Sarah Bedichek, lives there.
“I know that town. It’s a regular town with regular people,” Braden said in an interview before the vigil. “If it could happen there, it could happen in any town.”
And that sentiment was reinforced by an incident in January that prompted schools in the Windham Southeast district to lock their doors and step up security in response to a threat made by an individual.
“How long will it be before something bad happens here?” Braden asked. “We cannot pretend we’re immune here. There are such giant holes in our laws that this issue has to be addressed. All we’re calling for is really good background checks to make it harder for someone who shouldn’t own a gun to get one.”
Resistance to change?
Braden does seem to have support for her view. A February poll taken by the Castleton State College Polling Institute found that 82 percent of Vermont gun owners and 88 percent on non-gun owners support stricter background checks for firearms purchases.
That same poll found 55 percent of gun owners and 77 percent of non-gun owners supported restrictions on the capacity of ammunition magazines, and 50 percent of gun owners and 75 percent of non-gun owners support a ban on assault weapons.
“There’s more common ground than we think,” said Braden.
Braden said Vermont’s gun laws are among the most lax in the United States. It’s not illegal to carry a firearm in public places, except in a courthouse or on school grounds. Unlike many states, no permit is needed for concealed carry of firearms in Vermont. Guns & Ammo magazine recently had Vermont tied with Arizona for the most gun-friendly state in the union.
However, there appears to be little enthusiasm among Vermont lawmakers to change those laws.
A proposal to reinstate a now-expired federal ban on assault weapons, introduced by Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, was withdrawn just days into the 2013 session.
H.124, a bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex Junction, called for background checks for all firearms sales, limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines, and other restrictions. It failed to get enough support to even get out of committee.
And Gov. Peter Shumlin said earlier this year that Congress should take the lead on passing new gun legislation before Vermont strikes out on his own with tougher laws.
Neighboring states have gone ahead, however. Connecticut and New York recently passed laws banning the sale of some assault weapons, limiting ammunition clip capacity, and adding new safeguards to prevent the purchase of firearms by people with serious mental illness. Other states are considering similar laws.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, supported Waite-Simpson’s bill. “When we reconvene in January, I hope we will continue to move forward in bringing our laws into the 21st century,” he said at the vigil. “It’s time for us to act. We can’t wait for Washington.”
Why not Vermont?
Despite Vermont’s national reputation for liberalism, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of Vermont homes have firearms, well above the national average of about 30 percent.
Yet the state’s rate of homicide by firearms is so low that it doesn’t register in statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the state is regularly ranked as one of the safest in the nation, with low rates of violent crime.
These statistics offer an indication of why advocates of stiffer gun laws had little luck this year in Montpelier.
“The minute you walk into the Statehouse, it’s almost a forbidden topic,” Waite-Simpson told the Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., earlier this year. “That’s the way it has always been. It’s very discouraging to see that. I was in a small meeting where a representative said, ‘Please don’t make me vote on guns; it’s worse than civil unions.’ That’s how a lot of representatives are feeling — vulnerable.”
At the same time, Braden said that Vermont has the 12th highest rate of suicide by firearm in the United States, and the highest rate of accidental deaths among children from gun accidents in New England.
And while Vermont has been spared the trauma of a mass shooting, Braden said that the potential for such a tragedy is never far away.
“The gun lobby’s call for status quo is no longer acceptable,” she said. “The gun lobby is small in number, but they’re well-organized. We have to become just as well organized.”
Since its formation in March, GunSenseVT claims more than 400 members in 125 towns around the state. Braden said the group hopes to convince lawmakers that there is broad public support for what she calls “sensible gun laws” in Vermont, and that representing such a stance will not mean they will be voted out of office.
“People talk about their freedom when it comes to bearing arms,” Braden said at the vigil. “But there’s also a different kind of freedom that needs to be protected — freedom from fear. Children should be free to blow bubbles, and should be free to blow out candles on their next birthday cake. That is a freedom that must be preserved.”