In their first show of political force in Montpelier since lawmakers began taking up new firearms legislation, about 200 gun rights advocates jammed the Statehouse cafeteria Tuesday evening to show their opposition to the bills.
Richard Lee drove 75 miles, one-way, through heavy snow from his home in Clarendon to attend the sportsmen’s caucus mixer.
Turnout for the annual event was larger than usual. Lee says that’s because the hunting and sport-shooting community suddenly has reason to engage.
“We’re not criminals. We’re not bad guys,” Lee says. “And we’re as upset, or more upset, than anyone else when something happens with a gun that shouldn’t happen.”
But Lee says the gun legislation suddenly on a fast track in Montpelier is the wrong public policy response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month.
Lee wore a Gun Owners of Vermont T-shirt Tuesday, with the organization’s motto — “Dedicated to a no-compromise position against gun control” — printed on the back. Lee says gun rights purists like him are opposed to universal background checks and raising the age limit for buying a gun to 21, both of which have already passed the Vermont Senate.
Lee says he also worries those bills are precursors to a prohibition on certain classes of firearms, like the semi-automatic weapon used in Parkland.
“I think our legislators should be holding our state up as a guiding light to the rest of the nation. We’re the safest state in the nation,” Lee says. “There’s a reason for it.”
That Vermont is one of the safest states in the nation, and also has some of the country’s most permissive gun statutes, is often invoked by people to argue against new gun laws.
Ed Wilson, of Morrisville, attended the mixer with his grandson. Wilson wore a yellow T-shirt with the words, “ARMED, EDUCATED, AND READY TO VOTE.”
“And we want to make sure that the legislators know that we don’t want our rights infringed upon,” Wilson says. “If guns are banned because of criminal use, you’re telling the law-abiding that their rights and liberties depend on the conduct of criminals and the guilty.”
The gun rights community, however, is not a political monolith. And while Lee and Wilson may have drawn a line in the sand against any new firearms laws, some gun rights advocates have adopted a more nuanced position.
“I agree that we should have enhanced background checks,” says Berlin resident Mike Braun.
What Braun fears, he says, is the push for background checks escalating into a farther-reaching push for a ban on semi-automatic weapons, like the ones he shoots for sport at the Barre Fish and Game Club.
“I don’t want to see any restrictions whatsoever for my owning of firearms,” Braun says,
To be clear, no one in Montpelier as of yet is seeking prohibitions on the semi-automatic weapons that lawmakers in other states have sought to ban. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has said he’d oppose such a ban.
But House lawmakers say they do plan to consider restrictions on magazine capacity, and Scott has said he’s willing to entertain the idea.
Braun says the sizeable turnout at the mixer on Tuesday evening foreshadows the opposition legislators will encounter if they move forward with those proposals.
“What you’re seeing here happening in this cafeteria, basically these are real Vermonters that are devoting their time to try to stop us from having all these rules infringed upon … our rights,” Braun says.
Williston resident Richard Reed says he thinks lawmakers have done some good work in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
For instance, he says he’s all for the so-called “red flags” bill that was passed by the Vermont Senate earlier this month. The bill would allow police to seek a court order from a judge to seize firearms from someone deemed to pose an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.
But Reed says a companion bill in the House — that would allow police to temporarily seize firearms from the scene of an alleged domestic assault without a court order — begins to violate Vermonters’ constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure.
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Reed says he’s not convinced the Senate bill that would require federal background checks for private gun sales would do anything to improve public safety. And he says it bothers him that someone can be drafted at the age of 18, but that lawmakers want to raise the legal age limit for buying a gun to 21.
Reed says he appreciates the dilemma lawmakers face.
“They have a really tough job,” he says.
But Reed says he hopes they take approach that job with a clear mind.
“Be data-driven,” Reed says. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment and do something for the sake of doing anything.”