How a Republican governor who had been rated "A" by the NRA decided that Vermont, one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation, needed gun control laws.
Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode of JOLTED at joltedpodcast.org. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.
EMILY CORWIN, EDITOR: I'm Emily Corwin, the editor of JOLTED. Before we get started, this is the fourth episode of the podcast. If you haven't heard the other episodes, we recommend you hit pause and start listening back at episode one.
LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, HOST: There's a scrap of paper in Governor Phil Scott's office. It's got handwritten notes from the day the Governor received the report police wrote up after arresting Jack Sawyer.
PHIL SCOTT, GOVERNOR OF VERMONT: It was just on the back of a piece of paper that I happened to have. I don't know what it was but I just flipped it over and just jotted down notes as I was reading.
This is that same report we keep hearing about, where police summarize their interrogation of Jack. It describes the shotgun Jack bought to attack his old school, and his plans to kill more people than the Virginia Tech shooter.
SCOTT: I felt a bit naive as well, watching in real time. You know, as we watch Parkland unfold, and thinking this could have been us.
ELDER-CONNORS: So Governor Scott took notes. He didn't want to forget how reading this report made him feel.
SCOTT: I just wanted to be sure that I could go back to that, so that I knew why I was doing what I was doing and be able to describe to my staff why I was doing what I was doing.
ELDER-CONNORS: So can you describe the moment when you know you need to change your stance on gun control?
SCOTT: It was almost instantaneous.
ELDER-CONNORS: From Vermont Public Radio, this is Jolted.
I'm Liam Elder-Connors.
NINA KECK, HOST: And I'm Nina Keck.
On this episode, Governor Phil Scott changes his mind about gun control. And it all starts with handwritten notes on the back of a piece of paper.
PEG FLORY, RUTLAND COUNTY SENATOR: All anyone wanted to talk about was guns.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: We will be heard….
JOHN RODGERS, ESSEX-ORLEANS COUNTY SENATOR: Maybe it is over, maybe the Vermont I grew up in is over and it's changed.
KECK: Part 4: The Reversal
[SOUND OF DRIVING]
ELDER-CONNORS: It's summer in Vermont. The trees are lush and green and the sky is bright blue sky. I drive up to Glover, in northern Vermont to visit John Rodgers, a Democratic state senator.
[SOUND OF DOORS OPENING AND DOGS BARKING]
I'm roughly 30 miles from the Canadian border in a rural part of Vermont, that's known as the Northeast Kingdom. John Rodger's property looks out over expanses of pasture and rolling hills.
At John Rodger's place, it seems like no one is home. Then, a John Deere tractor ambles over the hill.
[SOUND OF TRACTOR AND RODGERS AND ELDER-CONNORS GREETING]
Rodgers wears a camo hat and an orange t-shirt. He's got a wide smile as he hops off the tractor.
RODGERS: Doin' some hemp farming.
ELDER-CONNORS: Oh, nice
As we walk inside, he tells me was tending to his hemp plants.
ELDER-CONNORS: How's the hemp doing?
RODGERS: Well, I'm way behind but it's coming, I had a couple construction problems….
In his office, Rodgers opens up his large gun safe.
RODGERS: This is the 308 that I hunt with and you'll notice I keep them loaded in gun safe, ready to go…
Rodgers is a fifth-generation Vermonter. He lives just down the road from his family's dairy farm.
When he's not in the Senate, he works his land and does construction. He's been hunting since he was a kid.
RODGERS: Yeah that was sort of our recreation on that farm when we had a spare minute.
For him hunting is not just about killing, it's more like meditation.
RODGERS: I just like to go out in the woods and just find a dead tree or stump to sit on. And you know you have I've had chickadees land on the end of the barrel of my gun while I'm sitting there just checking me out.
Of course, this episode is about politics. And Rodgers is a Democrat who sees gun rights as a civil right.
RODGERS: One of the things that upsets me the most is I've always stood up for everybody's rights. It doesn't it doesn't matter to me what your race, religion, sex, sexual orientation is. What matters is are you a good person or are you a bad person. And this is the first time we took rights away from good people and said you can't do what you've been doing for generations.
KECK: People see Vermont as a liberal bastion. I mean come on! We're the land of Ben and Jerry's, the band Phish and Bernie Sanders.
But the state's progressive reputation is pretty new. Until the 1960s and 70s, Vermont was solidly Republican.
Now, many of the state's policies skew liberal. We were the first to offer civil unions, and Vermont has even dabbled with the idea of universal healthcare.
At the same time, we've been one of the most gun friendly states in the country.
We're not like Massachusetts, where you need to keep guns locked up. Or California, where new residents have to report their guns. Or Utah and North Dakota, where you need a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
In Vermont, we have none of those laws.
ELDER-CONNORS: When people have tried to pass gun laws here? This is what happened:
PHIL BARUTH, CHITTENDEN COUNTY SENATOR: I would say, the apocalypse.
ELDER-CONNORS: This is Democratic state senator Phil Baruth. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, he proposed banning assault weapons in Vermont.
It did not go over well in Vermont's capital city.
BARUTH: I remember walking down to a bar in Montpelier the night after I submitted the bill and various people would not drink with me because I had put in a gun bill and you know they made it clear that that was beyond the pale.
ELDER-CONNORS: You're a Democrat right? And so you had Democrats attacking you?
BARUTH: Look what I wouldn't say that Democrats attacked me but I would say that they distanced themselves, which feels like an attack when you're when you're under fire.
ELDER-CONNORS: Baruth withdrew the bill six days after introducing it. He couldn't muster support.
Over roughly two decades in politics here, Republican Governor Phil Scott has had a single message on guns:
SCOTT: I don't believe we need more gun restrictions in Vermont at this time.
ELDER-CONNORS: This is what Scott told us at VPR when he ran for governor in 2016.
SCOTT: I think we should enforce the ones we have. I think we should focus more on safety and gun education.
ELDER-CONNORS: The governor, like many Vermonters, grew up with guns. After his father died, Scott's uncle would take him skeet shooting.
SCOTT: And he took me to buy my own shotgun which I still have. That was a 20 gauge Remington 870 Wingmaster.
ELDER-CONNORS: Scott describes this one aunt who could do anything: welding, house building, cake decorating.
SCOTT: She went deer hunting until she was in her 80s, and always managed to get, or bag of buck.
KECK: When you hear Governor Phil Scott talk, one thing you'll notice is he speaks deliberately and calmly. His voice is so measured and consistent, reporters joke about it.
But there's also this:
TELEVISION FOOTAGE FROM WPTZ-TV: To the track we go with the Vermont Governor in the 14 car, that of course is Phil Scott, looking to complete the race this time unlike his Memorial Day fiasco…
KECK: Stock car racing. At Thunder Road, the local track in his hometown of Barre, Scott is a three time track champion.
He's the kind of politician people accidently call by his first name. The kind of guy that would help pull your car out of a ditch in the winter.
Politically, Scott is a moderate Republican. He talks a lot about growing the economy and making the state more affordable.
But he's not alway in line with the national Republican party. He signed off on legal recreational pot this year.
Last year, when President Trump issued executive orders cracking down on immigration, Scott would not cooperate.
[TV NEWS MONTAGE]
KECK: Governor Scott has been in office for just over a year, when, On February 14, the shooting in Parkland Florida happens.
In Vermont, after tragedies like this, the response has become familiar.
Top political leaders offer their condolences. And when they hear calls for gun control, many say this - that Vermont doesn't have gun violence, at least not in the same way that larger, more urban states do. For instance, according to the FBI Uniform Crime report - Vermont had the 7th lowest homicide rate in 2016.
ELDER-CONNORS: The day after the shooting in Parkland, Governor Scott seems to follow that script. He tells the newspaper Seven Days, 'We're fortunate we're one of the safest states in the country, and I believe our gun laws are balanced.'
Then, a threat close to home: Jack Sawyer. Governor Scott is handed police documents outlining the young man's plans.
SCOTT: It shattered my impression, my view of this quintessential Vermont. It shattered that with one document.
ELDER-CONNORS: Then Governor Scott decides to hold a press conference.
SCOTT: Now you've covered me almost for a year now and you know I'm generally steady, measured, and I realize that sometimes this is viewed as being unemotional.
This time, his voice has lost its steady, deliberate tone.
SCOTT: In the aftermath of Florida, this situation of Fairhaven has jolted me, especially after reading the affidavit and realizing that only by the grace of God and the courage of a young woman who spoke up did we avert a horrific outcome.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's Jolted him, the governor says, into reconsidering gun laws
ELDER-CONNORS: So lawmakers get to work.
TIM ASHE, SENATE PRESIDENT: We were saying okay, well, where do we want to go with this?
ELDER-CONNORS: For Senate President Tim Ashe, the stakes are high. He's got a Republican Governor seemingly offering to do the unthinkable: sign a gun control bill. He's got to keep his colleagues focused.
ASHE: This is not cannot be treated as just an opportunity to create like a laundry list of unrelated measures and throw the kitchen sink at this problem.
ELDER-CONNORS: Ashe is afraid his colleagues will get carried away and lose this opportunity.
ASHE: Let's pick things that we think are strategic important will actually bend the curve on public safety. And so we started to galvanize around a few particular measures.
ELDER-CONNORS: Suddenly the statehouse is buzzing.
FLORY: All anyone wanted to talk about was guns.
ASHE: It wasn't clear what we would really coalesce around.
BARUTH: The core of the bill was my background check legislation.
BRENNAN: Personally, I fought the bill for about six hours of my own time on the floor.
ASHE: Then we had the domestic violence piece.
JOHNSON: There was already a bill introduced early in the session to ban bump stocks.
ELDER-CONNORS: This is Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.
JOHNSON: It was really busy, I can tell you that. You know the hours and hours and hours of testimony and bill drafting.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's just weeks after Jack Sawyer's arrest. Things inside the statehouse are moving fast. After all, the legislature is only is session until May, and who knows how long this momentum will last.
KECK: At the same time, student activists from Parkland are on TV almost every night.
[MONTAGE FROM NATIONAL NEWS ON PARKLAND STUDENT PROTESTS]
[SOUNDS OF CHEERING]
KECK: Students in Vermont also pressure lawmakers.
They're at legislative committees, they walk out their classrooms and they march
in Montpelier and across the state.
STUDENTS: We will be heard, that we will not stop fighting and that our voices matter just as much as anyone else's.
KECK: In no time, lawmakers pass three bills.
SENATE FLOOR ROLL-CALL: Senator Ashe, yes. Senator Ayer, yes. Senator Baruth, yes…
KECK: Two of the bills allow the courts to take guns away from potentially dangerous people.
Those two bills pass unanimously.
A third bill would raise the purchasing age for guns to 21, require background checks for most gun sales and ban bump stocks and large capacity magazines.
It's that bill that creates controversy.
In the county where Jack Sawyer terrified a school and community, Republican State Senator Peg Flory gets 480 emails in two weeks from voters in her district.
FLORY: Probably 60 percent was, 'You've got to do something to protect our children.' The other 40 percent was, 'don't go passing stupid laws.'
KECK: She votes no.
FLORY: Someone that is going to ignore the 'it's against the law to murder someone,' Do you think they're going to really say 'oh I can no longer go and shoot somebody because I can't buy a gun?' That doesn't make sense to me.
KECK: On the senate floor, Democrat John Rodgers stands up and tells his colleagues this:
RODGERS: I think maybe if we pass this bill, maybe it is over. Maybe the Vermont I grew up with is over, and it's changed.
Rodgers also votes no. And then he goes home:
RODGERS: And I looked out at those hills and I just said to myself they just don't understand that people like myself my family and people like us have been protecting these hills for generations. We don't have a police force anywhere nearby. And so if a neighbor has a rabid fox, some neighbors don't have firearms. They know a neighbor that does, they can call em up. If someone has something weird going on around their house and are scared, they can call a neighbor to come check into it and make sure there's not somebody with ill-intent.
KECK: Still, that third bill, the controversial one, it passes in both chambers.
The day after the Senate votes, gun rights activists try to convince the Governor to veto.
KECK: About 1,000 people rally in Montpelier, where activists hand out free, 30-round magazines. A Texas firearm accessories company had overnighted the magazines to Vermont.
[RALLY SOUND: 400 pounds of mags overnight, Saturday delivery...that doesn't come cheap….cheering and clapping.]
KECK: These magazines will be banned under the new law.
[RALLY SOUND: Try to keep it civil; try to keep everyone lined up and help each other out and man, it's all about freedom, it's all about unity. Thanks Vermont...cheering.
KECK: Many lawmakers from Governor Phil Scott's own party are frustrated. Including Republican Representative Pat Brennan.
PAT BRENNAN, VERMONT STATE REPRESENTATIVE : He just gave pretty much a blank you know a blank sheet for these anti gunners to come in and advance any legislation.
ELDER-CONNORS: Bill-signing ceremonies are usually pretty staid affairs. Most of the time they're held in the governor's ceremonial office. They might be attended by a dozen or so people.
But this time, the governor sends out an open invitation on Twitter. It says Please join me at the statehouse at 2 pm.
[CHEERING AT STATEHOUSE]
ELDER-CONNORS: On the afternoon of April 11, not quite two months after Jack Sawyer's arrest, Scott walks out in front of the statehouse, surrounded by security.
[BOOS, CLAPPING, CHEERS]
ELDER-CONNORS: Were you nervous?
SCOTT: Oh absolutely.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's a divided crowd. To his left, people in green hold signs that say, 'thank you Governor Scott.'
To his right - people in orange. Some of their signs read 'flip-flop Phil'.
[CHANTING: Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!]
Scott sits at a desk on the steps of the capitol. Behind him, security stands in dark sunglasses alongside public officials and Scott's wife, Diana.
The three bills lie on the desk. Scott pulls the first one closer and flips through the pages. His wife puts her hand on his back. Scott pauses for a moment and looks up at her, he says somethings and smiles a little. Then he turns back to the desk, looks down and signs the first bill.
He reaches to second bill. Someone yells, 'not my governor.'
Scott grabs the last piece of paper. The public officials around him begin to clap. He turns to the last page and signs.
KECK: According to a VPR-Vermont PBS Poll taken in July, a majority of Vermonters either generally or completely support the new gun laws. The greatest opposition comes from Republicans,Phil Scott's base.
And they're mad. Here's the talk at a local gun shop in South Burlington.
CUSTOMER 1: There's several thousand people that aren't going to support him for sure. He speaks with a forked tongue and you can tell I said so right there.
CUSTOMER 2: What can we do? Vote him out.
CUSTOMER 3: Yeah, I voted for Scott Yeah. Course, probably what's the next question am I going to vote for him next time? Heck no.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's the beginning of August, when I sit down with Governor Scott. He's two weeks away from the Republican primary, a primary where he has a challenger who's attacked him for supporting the gun laws.
SCOTT: It's difficult to take when people are calling you a traitor when when you... I don't feel as though I am.
ELDER-CONNORS: It's been three months since Scott signed the bills, and he says people are still confronting him.
SCOTT: There were times when I was going into a convenience store over the last few months and I'm waiting in line and someone calls who walks by and calls me a traitor.
ELDER-CONNORS: When they do, Scott says he pulls out the Jack Sawyer affidavit - literally, the document describing Jack's plans to shoot up his old school in alarming detail.
SCOTT: I want them to walk in my shoes and to have a glimpse of what I was going through.
ELDER-CONNORS: So you carry around copies of the affidavit?
ELDER-CONNORS: How many have you handed out?
SCOTT: Oh, dozens.
ELDER-CONNORS: One group of people who are angry with Scott mounts a write-in campaign to get state senator John Rodgers nominated in the Democratic primary. That's the guy who grows hemp in the Northeast Kingdom.
When I ask Governor Scott if he's concerned that he might lose the primary, he says yes.
SCOTT: We have low voter participation in primaries anyhow but this could be the lowest. And we have a highly charged group of people who are not happy with me at all angry with me and want retribution and they are energized to go to the polls to cast their vote in opposition to me.
KECK: But when primary day comes on August 14, 107,000 people cast ballots. It's the second highest turnout in state history.
John Rodgers doesn't win the Democratic primary. He gets just over 1,000 write-in votes.
And Governor Scott does win the Republican primary with 65 percent of the vote.
ELDER-CONNORS: Over the last six years, 486 people died from gunshot wounds in Vermont. Almost all were suicides. There are gun-related homicides in Vermont. Of these, ,any are linked to domestic violence.
Now, Governor Scott has signed two new laws may address these statistics.
One is a 'red flag law.' Guns can be taken away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. In fact, the first time the state used the red flag law was to remove Jack Sawyer's guns.
The other law law lets police take guns away from people arrested for domestic violence.
These two laws had broad support. Yet it took Jack Sawyer and the spectre of mass casualties to bring them about.
Coming up on the final episode of 'Jolted:'
JULIA ADAMS, FAIR HAVEN UNION TEACHER: I remember being like, I never thought as a teacher that I would ever have to go to like a back to school training that was something like this.
ELDER-CONNORS: What can we learn from an averted school shooting?
Jolted is reported and produced by Nina Keck and me, Liam Elder-Connors
Emily Corwin is our editor and project manager.
Sarah Ashworth is our Senior Editor.
Angela Evancie is VPR's Managing Editor for Podcasts.
John Van Hoesen is VPR's Chief Content Officer.
KECK: Our theme Music is by Ty Gibbons. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Engineering support is from Chris Albertine
We had digital support from Jonathan Butler, Noah Villamarin-Cutter and Meg Malone.
Special thanks in this episode go to our colleagues: Peter Hirschfeld, John Dillon and Bob Kinzel.
Support for JOLTED comes from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from Primmer Piper Eggleston and Cramer, PC.