Vermont’s next gun debate heats up early

Gun-control activists face fierce resistance in a state with no gun laws. But will Vermonters support some measures?

BRATTLEBORO — It was shortly after New Year's Day when Ann Braden made a life-altering decision.

On the way home from a pro-gun-control rally in Washington, D.C., in late January, she stopped at her mother's house in Newtown, Conn., the site of the mass shooting by a lone gunman of 20 children and six teachers last December.

While visiting, the 33-year-old noticed 26 handmade stars adorning the town's street lamps: one for each victim. She recalled how rally attendees were challenged to “do one thing every day” to support passage of stricter gun laws.

Looking at the stars, Braden realized simply attending a rally was not enough: that the families of the victims would not have the luxury of just rallying and forgetting.

“They can't say, 'I've done what I'm going to do' and move on,” she says.

So the mother of two, a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, decided not to, either.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Newtown massacre, Braden's upstart coalition, Gun Sense Vermont - a group of civic-minded Vermont gun owners and non-gun owners who are campaigning for common sense gun laws - plans to deliver a petition to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin asking for more to be done in a state that, as she puts it, “has become a beacon for people wanting to buy guns.”

Last month, Gun Sense Vermont, which claims to have grown to roughly 800 members in five months, began collecting petition signatures in Brattleboro, even as an opposing group, Gun Owners of Vermont, has spent the summer fighting to protect gun rights around the state.

The advance positioning, months ahead of Vermont's next legislative session, which begins in January, signals that this is one battle that is not about to cool down any time soon.

“The amount of activity has been highly unusual this summer,” says Ed Cutler, legislative director of Bellows Falls-based Gun Owners of Vermont.

Gun Sense is advocating for the passage of several basic gun laws not currently on the books: the expansion of safe-storage education for guns; improved communication among state agencies and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and bringing Vermont laws in line with federal laws to prohibit violent felons from possessing firearms.

Braden faces fierce resistance. Vermont has long taken pride in its dearth of both gun laws and gun violence.

“Vermont's gun laws can be summed up in one sentence,” says David Campbell, special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Burlington: “There are none.”

Although federal laws apply throughout the state, the ATF says it lacks resources to pursue each serious infraction.

Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, a member of the coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has highlighted data suggesting that guns from Vermont directly contribute to violent crimes in Massachusetts.

The coalition ranked Vermont at the top of the list in exporting more guns per capita than any other New England state, and named the state the nation's 16th most prolific gun exporter.

Last week, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said on national television that 90 percent of guns seized from crime scenes “come from out of state.”

The NYPD declined to identify the states it viewed as the worst offenders. The National Rifle Association did not return calls for comment.

Despite the knock-on effects outside Vermont, within its borders gun violence does not appear to be a chief concern. In fact, in reading the data, Vermont is an outright anomaly within the U.S. in that, even given its lack of gun laws, there are very few violent gun crimes.

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that Vermont had the lowest firearms homicides in the nation next to Hawaii in 2011, the most recent year data were given. The number of homicides with firearms in Vermont that year: four.

In Brattleboro alone, there have been only two aggravated assaults with firearms in 2013, according to police statistics as of late August.

Another statistic looms large, however: Vermont has the 12th highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

State Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex, who introduced gun legislation in Vermont last year supported by Gun Sense, believes the high suicide rate is directly linked to the state's easy gun access. Her bill, which sought to change the state limit on bullets in detachable magazines from 30 to 10, failed to gain traction last year.

Waite-Simpson plans to introduce a somewhat more streamlined version of the bill during the next legislative session, perhaps part of the reason why gun groups have begun to get active early.

Many Vermonters realize that “we are part of a bigger whole,” Waite-Simpson says, noting that although gun violence is relatively low in the state, Vermont's lack of regulation appears to be affecting neighboring states.

State Sen, John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, who comes from a fifth-generation farming family in Glover, says he believes the nation has more of a violence problem than a gun problem.

“Some people see guns as a weapon, but on a farm it is considered just another tool, the same as a chain saw,” he says.

Rodgers says that if gun laws are passed in Vermont, it will not stop criminal activity; it will only make life more difficult for law-abiding citizens desiring to own guns.

Although he did not support Waite-Simpson's bill, Rodgers says he does want to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and other potentially dangerous people through a strict background check system. Such areas of overlap may allow for further discussion next year.

A Castleton State College poll, conducted in the wake of the Newtown massacre last February, indicated a majority of Vermont's residents are much more open to a conversation about gun-control than it would appear.

The poll, while small in scale, found that 84 percent of gun owners and non-gun owners would be amenable to requiring stricter reporting from mental-health professionals to the national background check system. A slightly smaller majority favored laws that would “close the gun-show loophole,” which sometimes makes it easier to buy guns, and “banning the sale of high capacity ammunition magazines and clips.”

Vermont's gun debate may be far from over, but as Braden sees it, “Vermont has an opportunity to make a statement and take a stand in the national conversation.”