Gun Control Battle Brewing In Burlington

Oct 21, 2013

Bob Dougall of Bolton, left, and Diane Tardif of Essex Junction came to Burlington Monday to protest proposed gun control measures.
Bob Dougall of Bolton, left, and Diane Tardif of Essex Junction came to Burlington Monday to protest proposed gun control measures.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Update: Burlington City Council approved three of the four proposed measures. Read VPR's full story of the meeting here.

Burlington’s City Council Monday night heard public comments about proposed charter changes that would increase regulation of firearms in the city.

Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall was standing room only, and the city council opened the auditorium’s balcony for a one-hour public hearing on the proposed changes.

Four charter changes were at issue: The first would ban guns from any establishment with a liquor license; another would require police to seize firearms after domestic abuse incidents, a third requires “safe storage” of firearms, and the final change requires a permit for carrying concealed firearms.

The divide was clear, with gun control advocates wearing green T-shirts from GunSense Vermont, a gun control advocacy group. Gun rights advocates arrived in fluorescent orange hats and vests commonly worn by deer hunters. The gun rights activists passed out bright orange pamphlets that read “NO Burlington Gun Control.”

Many of the gun rights activists were mobilized by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a group that lobbies to keep Vermont’s gun laws among the most relaxed in the nation.

Evan Hughes, the vice president of the group, said in an interview Monday that the proposed changes are in direct conflict with a Vermont state law that he calls the “Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.”

The law states that, “Except as otherwise provided by law, no town, city, or incorporated village … shall directly regulate hunting, fishing and trapping or the possession, ownership, transportation, transfer, sale, purchase, carrying, licensing or registration of traps, firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or ammunition.” It also says, “The provisions of this section shall supersede any inconsistent provisions of a municipal charter.”

Based on that language, Hughes says, the city cannot legally regulate firearms.

Municipal charter changes have a long political journey. In order to go into effect, the city council must vote to put the change on the ballot and voters must approve it. Then, because charters are an agreement between the state government and municipal governments, the state legislature must approve the changes before they become official.

City Attorney Eileen Blackwood says the city's charter change explicitly establishes an exemption to the law Hughes referenced, so if the legislature passes the change, the city will be on firm legal ground.

An assault weapons ban was not on Monday night’s agenda. While the charter change committee and Mayor Miro Weinberger pushed for an assault weapons ban earlier this year, the city backed away from the regulation. Weinberger said he pulled his support when it became clear that an assault weapons ban would be difficult to pass in Montpelier.

Weinberger announced in a statement Monday afternoon that he supports three of the four provisions. Weinberger said that “after careful consideration,” he opposes a permitting process for concealed carry and assault weapons ban “because I doubt the effectiveness of these measures and because these two particular reforms would create a patchwork of local regulation that would be problematic for responsible Vermont gun owners.”