Gov. Phil Scott came under fire from gun-rights advocates when he signed a sweeping gun bill earlier this year, but the VPR - Vermont PBS Poll shows two-thirds of Vermonters support the new law.
Williston resident Polly Malick is among the 603 Vermonters surveyed in the poll. Malick doesn’t own a firearm herself, but she says she respects the tradition of gun ownership in Vermont.
What concerns Malick, she says, is the relative ease with which people can acquire semi-automatic weapons in this state. And she says mass shootings across the United States underscore the need for stricter gun laws.
“Yeah, I’m for gun restriction,” Malick says. “And I think the only way it can get done is through legislation.”
Malick is among the large majority of Vermonters who, according to the poll, support an expansive gun bill signed into law by Scott back in April.
The legislation included universal background checks, a limit on magazine capacity, and a ban on bump stocks. It also raised the legal age to purchase a gun to 21 years old.
67 percent of the 603 people surveyed say they completely favor or generally favor the new law. That compares with 25 percent who say they completely oppose or generally oppose the law.
Tim Malloy, assistant director at Quinnipiac University Poll in Connecticut, says the numbers track with national trends.
“In fact, demographic groups that you would think would not be for stricter gun control measures last time around, were. You know, white males, gun owners, people like that,” Malloy says.
In the VPR - Vermont PBS Poll, the greatest opposition to the new gun law comes from poll respondents who identify as Republicans; 32 percent completely oppose the measures, and 20 percent generally oppose them.
But while pockets of the electorate may bristle at gun laws, Malloy says support for stricter restrictions on gun ownership nationally has increased dramatically in the five-plus years since a gunman killed 20 elementary students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Quinnipiac’s latest national poll on gun control was conducted the week after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It found that American voters support stricter gun laws by a two-to-one margin.
Vermont isn’t the only state where laws have begun to reflect the change in public opinion. Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says 26 states have passed new restrictions on gun ownership since the Parkland shooting.
“I think there’s going to be a political price to pay for not supporting gun safety legislation. And I think we’re going to see that at both the state level and the federal level,” Lloyd says.
Amid the deluge of media reports on mass shootings and other forms of gun violence, Lloyd says measures like universal background checks and magazine capacity limits sound like common sense to regular citizens.
“These are things that I think are really going to move the needle in terms of saving lives in Vermont, and that’s why I think they’re so popular,” Lloyd says.
Bob DePino, vice-president of Gun Owners of Vermont, says elected officials should be wary of the polling data.
“Public opinion should not drive legislation,” DePino says.
DePino says that maxim is especially true when the legislation in question deals with a constitutional right, like the right to bear arms.
“Any violation of a constitutional right is not right, even if 51 percent of the population wants it,” DePino says.
DePino and other gun-rights activists contend the Vermont law was a violation of rights enshrined under Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution. A group of plaintiffs is challenging the constitutionality of the limits on magazine capacity.
Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of Gun Sense Vermont, says she believes that court case will affirm the constitutionality of Vermont’s new gun law. And she says the VPR - Vermont-PBS Poll results validate the decision by lawmakers and the Republican governor to move forward with the new gun measures.
“I think that it speaks to the legislative body and the governor listening to the will of the people,” Lasher-Sommers says.
DePino, however, says the poll also calls into question the strength of that will. Asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the state of Vermont today?” only 2 percent of respondents said “guns” and “gun control.”
“Taxes and education and economy and health care, even environmental issues are higher priority than gun control,” DePino says. “We’re the safest state.”
And the poll also shows a general level of comfort among Vermonters when it comes to safety in public schools. Asked whether they think “students in Vermont schools are completely safe, mostly safe, or not safe at school from incidents like the Parkland, Florida school shooting,” 77 percent of respondents said they believe students are either “completely safe” or “mostly safe.”
Lasher-Sommers says those results aren’t consistent with what she hears from people who spend their days inside those schools.
“I’ve talked to students across Vermont, and they certainly don’t feel safe. I don’t think the teachers feel particularly safe,” Lasher-Sommers says.
And Lasher-Sommers says Gun Sense will be looking to expand on the gun provisions the organization helped push into law in 2018. Gun Sense’s 2019 legislative agenda, according to Lasher-Sommers, will include a safe storage law, which would require firearms to be kept in a locked storage space, as well as a waiting period for people seeking to acquire a new gun.
“This is about making people safer in Vermont, with good gun safety prevention bills,” Lasher-Sommers says.
The widespread support for Vermont’s new gun law might not necessarily signal support for how the governor and Legislature are dealing with the issue of gun violence generally.
Sandra Lawrence lives in Burlington, and was among the VPR-Vermont PBS poll respondents who generally support the new gun law.
“But they’re not hitting the problem,” Lawrence says. “They’re not addressing what’s really causing these issues.”
The real issue, Lawrence says, is mental health. And until policymakers get at the root cause of the violence, she says all the gun bills in the world won’t make her state any safer.
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters questions to learn where they stand on key issues and how they feel about candidates for statewide office. Explore the full results of the July 2018 poll here.