Burlington Vote Tests Community’s Right To Restrict Firearms

Mar 3, 2014

As Vermonters head to the polls for Town Meeting, Burlington voters will decide on one of the most controversial items this year: three changes to the city’s charter that would put stricter controls on guns. Groups on both sides say fundamental rights are at stake and are organizing to get out the vote.

In October of last year, Burlington’s City Council put three gun control amendments to the city’s charter up for voter approval on Town Meeting Day.

The changes would ban guns from any establishment with a liquor license, allow police to seize firearms after domestic abuse incidents and require “safe storage” of firearms.

Evan Hughes is the vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a group that lobbies to keep Vermont’s gun laws among the most relaxed in the nation. He says changes to those laws should not be decided by individual towns.

“People comply with the law best when they understand the law, and it’s uniform throughout the state,” said Hughes.

Hughes cites what he calls the “Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.” It’s a law that states no individual town or city in the state can directly regulate hunting and fishing, or regulate firearms.

But Burlington’s proposed charter change explicitly establishes an exemption to the law Hughes referenced. And gun control advocates say that if the state won’t pass stricter gun laws, it’s up to individual communities to take action.

Marie Adams, the Chittenden County organizer of Gun Sense Vermont, says the proposed changes are common sense. As for the “Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights,” Adams says it’s outdated.

"We certainly believe it’s time for Montpelier to address our antiquated gun laws." - Marie Adams, Gun Sense Vermont

“We certainly believe it’s time for Montpelier to address our antiquated gun laws,” said Adams. “There isn’t a law on the books that can’t be repealed or amended. And certainly a bill that’s 25 years old might not be applicable to a 21st century world.”

But Evan Hughes disagrees. He says the changes are unnecessary.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” said Hughes. “We have one of the lowest crime rates in the United States, in spite of the fact that our gun ownership percentages are very high.”

Hughes says the federation of sportsmen’s clubs feels so strongly about the charter change, that it spent about $15,000 on signs and advertising urging the public to vote “no” on the proposed changes.

Gun Sense Vermont also distributed signs and advertised, but spent considerably less. Adams estimates her group spent about $1,000 on signage and flyers.

"We will be going on to the legislature, if these ballot issues show up on a piece of legislation at the statehouse." -Evan Hughes, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs

Voters head to the polls tomorrow, but even if the measures do pass, the battle will continue. The Legislature needs to approve any changes to the city’s charter. And Hughes says gun rights activists are committed to lobbying lawmakers to reject the changes.

“We will be going on to the legislature, if these ballot issues show up on a piece of legislation at the statehouse, said Hughes.”

The polls will be open in Burlington tomorrow from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.