Gun control has long been considered the third rail of Vermont politics, and a debate over universal background checks last year reminded lawmakers why. But a new VPR poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Vermonters support background checks for all gun sales, and even favor waiting periods for firearms transactions.
And at least one lawmaker says it’s time to resolve the apparent disconnect between public opinion and legislative policy.
The VPR Poll was made possible by the VPR Journalism Fund. Explore the full results here.
Luke Reynolds is a musician and sixth generation Vermonter from Addison County. Like any good hunter, he knows his way around a firearm. He still remembers getting his first one, when he was 12.
“It was a Mossberg 500 12-gauge pump-action that I still hunt with 24 years later,” Reynolds says.
As much as he appreciates the hunting tradition, though, Reynolds says he favors new restrictions for the purchase and use of firearms. The former deer and elk hunting guide says reforms like universal background checks or waiting periods for gun sales are an appropriate response to incidents of gun-related violence.
“It’s not enough to just sit back and grieve every time there’s a shooting, or there’s a death caused by a firearm,” Reynolds says. “I think that action needs to be taken. And I would wholeheartedly support legislative reform.”
Reynolds is hardly alone. A VPR poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute found that nine in 10 residents support mandatory background checks for all gun transactions, including private sales. More than eight in 10 favor a waiting period between the time of purchase of a firearm and the time a person can take it home.
“We talk about in public opinion, there are these non-valence issues, issues where no matter who you ask they’re all going to be in agreement,” says Rich Clark, director of the Castleton Polling Institute. “Do we favor freedom? Do we want freedom of speech? Do we love our mothers? All those things where you have super-majorities. And we’re seeing that level of support in there.”
Support for universal background check and waiting periods was decisive even among self-identified gun owners and self-identified Republicans. Eight in 10 gun owners say they support universal background checks; two-thirds of Republicans say they support waiting periods, though the margin of error for that subgroup is considerably higher than for the overall results.
Across age, region and political affiliation, Vermonters seemed to agree on these measures. Evan Hughes, vice-president the Vermont Federation of Sportmen’s Clubs, says there’s a good reason why the poll came out like it did.
“Not surprised with those results given the way those questions were framed,” Hughes says.
Hughes’ organization – it’s a NRA affiliate group in Vermont – advocated vociferously against universal background check legislation last year.
Hughes says given a preference between better enforcement of existing laws or adding new ones to the books, poll respondents would have opted for the former. He says Vermont has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the nation.
“So these are political solutions to problems that don’t exist,” Hughes says.
Ann Braden is head of GunSense Vermont, the organization that led the push for universal background checks. Braden says the results of the poll are unambiguous.
“I think one of the things that was interesting is how very few folks are undecided on this issue,” says Braden.
Only 2 percent of survey respondents said they were “not sure” if they support universal background checks, or that “it depends” on the situation.
Braden says the background check issue isn’t academic.
“If you go onto armslist.com – it’s a site for selling guns – you can search for private sales on that site and come up with any number of guns on that site that are available for sale in Vermont with no background check required,” Braden says.
Braden says that means guns are available in this state to people who might not otherwise be able to pass the federal background check. She says that kind of access imperils the safety of other Vermonters, particularly women in abusive relationships. She points to a study by the Violence Policy Center last fall that shows women in Vermont are statistically more likely to be killed by their male partners than in all but seven other states.
She says states that have adopted universal background checks laws have significantly less chance of being shot by their male intimate partners than in states that have not.
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth helped orchestrate the unsuccessful push for universal background checks last year. Given the difficulty in the Statehouse, was he surprised to see such consensus results in the poll?
“No," he says. "They are dramatic, but they’re not surprising, and I think it’s easy to see why."
Baruth says the latest mass shooting that left six dead in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this weekend only underscores the premise for the background check legislation. Baruth says the gun debate last year sapped political will for the issue in this biennium.
Next year, he says, will be a different story.
“And when you have that kind of overwhelming political will behind something, it’s only a matter of time before it expresses itself in legislation,” Baruth says.
Baruth says he also expects to see proposals for waiting periods and other gun measures.
The VPR poll also gauged Vermonters’ opinions on proposals to limit where someone can carry a firearm – charter changes approved by voters in the city of Burlington last year would have imposed such restrictions. The changes require legislative approval, which lawmakers have not yet granted.
Support for restrictions on where people can carry firearms was less overwhelming – 58 percent said they favor the concept; 32 percent disapproved.
The VPR Poll was made possible by the VPR Journalism Fund.