(1) The typical Vermonter owns guns and opposes any effort to regulate them;
(2) with almost no violent crime in the state, there’s no point to more gun control.
After all, isn’t hunting so deep-seated in Vermont’s culture that the opening of the November deer season is effectively a state holiday? Isn’t Vermont’s murder rate just about the lowest in the nation? Wasn’t the Majority Leader of the State Senate forced into a hasty withdrawal of his bill to ban semi-automatic weapons lest it taint the entire Democratic Party?
Yes, yes, and yes.Deer season is a big deal. Vermont has the second lowest violent crime and murder rates in America. Politicians are spooked by the perceived power of the “gun lobby.”
Using actual evidence rather than simple supposition, here are some facts: Most Vermonters do not hunt; at most, half the households own a gun; most people – including a majority of those who do hunt or own guns – favor stronger gun control laws; while it’s true that those laws can’t do much to make safe Vermonters much safer, they might make folks safer in Massachusetts and New York, where guns used in violent crime often come from Vermont.
“Vermont is part of a bigger whole,” said Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, the Essex Junction Democrat who is sponsoring a gun control bill – one that has not been withdrawn – in the Legislature.
That sponsorship earned Waite-Simpson the warning that she was being “targeted” for defeat by gun rights defenders. The warning was typical gun politics, illustrating something else “everybody knows” about the gun debate: it’s angry and confrontational, with neither side willing to compromise or even try to understand the other.
Dig a little deeper, and this doesn’t seem true, either. Not that there isn’t some anger on both sides of the divide. But not everybody responds in kind. Targeted a few years ago after sponsoring another gun-related bill (which fizzled, largely because lawmakers were frightened by gun rights activists), Waite-Simpson decided to learn more about guns and their owners. She bought a pistol, learned how to use it, and would like to find common ground with gun owners.
“I’m not opposed to law-abiding citizens possessing all the weapons they want,” she said.
Nor is every gun enthusiast hostile to all gun control suggestions. As the former president and now secretary of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and a devoted competitive shooter, Chris Bradley of Northfield certainly qualifies as a gun enthusiast. As such, he’s wary of restrictions on the use or possession of firearms.
In general, he said, “the firearm owning community is exceedingly leery of any legislation that affects firearms. All indications are that we do not enforce the firearms laws we have on the books now, federal or otherwise, so the general feeling is: Why do we want, or need, more ‘feel-good’ laws that will go unenforced or are otherwise unenforceable?”
But he also said he did not think convicted felons or people with serious mental illness should be permitted to own guns and “absolutely no problem” with the provisions of Waite-Simpson’s bill (H. 124) that would harmonize state law with federal statutes banning felons from owning firearms, or require officials to report the names of some mental health patients to the National Instant Criminal Background System.
Which is not to say that cooperation and good will looms in Vermont’s gun debate. First of all, not everyone on either side is as flexible as Waite-Simpson and Bradley. Besides, there are real differences between the two sides, differences of attitude as much as opinion.
As Bradley indicated, gun owners worry that the slaughter of children at Newtown, Connecticut last year inspired some Vermonters to “do something” even though gun crime is not a major problem in Vermont.
But according to law enforcement officials, Vermont guns are a real problem in other states. An analysis of government data by Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that Vermont had the 16th highest rate of “crime gun exports” in the country. A “crime gun export” is a gun brought in from another state and used in a violent crime. The analysis showed that in 2010 41 guns originating in Vermont were recovered after crimes committed in New York State and 35 in Massachusetts.
The Mayors group, headed by Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Thomas Menino of Boston, does not even claim to be objective in the gun control debate. But its figures come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and have not been refuted. They appear to demonstrate that Vermont is a “go-to” state for some criminals to obtain guns.
Is this because Vermont has weaker gun control laws than other states?Yes, says Vermont’s U.S. Attorney, Tristram Coffin.
“People we see coming up here to get guns come from states that have significant levels of state gun laws and regulations,” he said. In Massachusetts, someone trying to find a “straw buyer” to purchase a gun for him “would have to find somebody who has a hand gun permit,” Coffin said. In addition, the “straw buyer” in Vermont could buy several firearms at once, which Coffin said would be more difficult in most nearby states.
Vermont has only one of the 10 state gun control laws recommended by the mayors group. State law does not impose criminal penalties for buying a gun for another person who is not eligible to buy one, or for buying a gun with false information. It does not require that lost or stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.
For years, this laissez-faire attitude has been attributed both to the relative lack of crime in the state, making gun control seem superfluous, and to the political clout of hunters and gun owners.
That clout is real. The “gun rights” constituency is not tiny, and it is single-minded; some gun-owners will vote for or against a candidate on that issue alone.
But it is by no means a majority. In 2011, the Fish & Wildlife Department reported, 57,548 adult Vermonters bought hunting licenses. That’s less than 12 percent of the state’s 495,866 eligible voters. Obviously, not all gun owners are hunters. Some are competitive target shooters, many own a gun for self-defense, and thousands of Vermonters own guns they rarely if ever use, having inherited them from parents and grand-parents who lived in a more rural state.
Exactly how many people in any state own guns is not easy to gauge. In a 2001 poll taken by the pro-gun group USACarry (as reported last year by the web site About.com), 42 percent of Vermont households reported owning a firearm. That was the 20th highest rate in the country, but with only 1.7 percent more gun-owning households than 25th-ranked Georgia.
In polling, that’s margin-of-error territory. When it comes to gun ownership, Vermont appears to be in or near the middle of the pack. In the new poll from Castleton Polling Institute, 50 percent of respondents said there was a firearm in their household.
But not all hunters and gun-owners oppose stronger gun control laws. A new poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton State College will show that, on the contrary, even a majority of the hunters and gun-owners want some of those laws strengthened, as do a majority of all Vermonters. Details of the poll will be released Thursday, February 21.
There are two gun-related bills before the Legislature this year:The other one, H. 243, sponsored by Rep. Alison Clarkson, a Woodstock Democrat, doesn’t control guns. It would impose penalties on any adult in whose home a “child is likely to gain access to the firearm without the permission of the child’s parent or legal guardian; and…obtains access to the firearm and uses it to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person.”
This is similar to the bill Waite-Simpson sponsored back in 2010, the one legislators were afraid to touch, It is in response to the reality that while Vermont has low rate of violent crime, it has a relatively high rate of one violent act – suicide, and especially teenage suicide – usually by gun.
It was specifically in response to the suicide of Aaron Bing Xue, a 15-year-old freshman at Essex High School, who killed himself with a handgun another student had taken from his father’s gun collection.
It’s impossible to say with certainty that a Child Access Prevention (CAP) law would have prevented Aaron’s death. Or that it would not have prevented it. The conventional wisdom in Montpelier holds that H. 243 is considered is unlikely to pass. But Chris Bradley, while questioning “just how big the problem really is in Vermont,” added that “I personally have no serious objection to it.”
- Jon Margolis