Bennington Sen. Dick Sears isn’t generally known for his delicacy. When troubled by circumstance, or the person who brought it about, Sears will, from time to time, lend voice to his dissatisfaction.
And so it was on Wednesday morning, when the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee unleashed an epic verbal smack down on Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont.
Cutler had assumed his seat in the witness chair to urge against passage of proposed legislation that would make it illegal, under state law, for people convicted of certain felonies to own or possess a firearm.
Cutler enumerated some of the reasons for his opposition – it’s already illegal under federal law; reformed felons ought not suffer revocation of their right to bear arms. Cutler then proceeded to bemoan the perennial introduction of this particular piece of gun-control legislation.
“The problem, and you guys, you’ve been thinking about … doing this for years now, trying to figure out some way to do this,” Cutler said.
Listen: A debate over gun control legislation has inflamed passions in Montpelier among lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the issue. Tensions boiled over in a Senate committee room Wednesday, when VPR's Peter Hirschfeld captured an intense exchange between Bennington Sen. Dick Sears and Ed Cutler from Gun Owners of Vermont. Cutler is on mic; Sears can be heard from across the table.
“How do you know this,” Sears asked.
“Because you keep putting this bill in,” Cutler said.
It was at this moment that Sears’ face began to redden.
“What? Now wait a minute. I keep putting this bill in? Ed! Ed! I have never introduced a gun bill. Ever!”
On that last word, “ever,” Sears’ voice assumed the high pitch of rage.
Cutler tried to mollify him.
“No, no, no, no. The problem is the language – not your-”
Sears cut him off.
“You’re the one who said I was extremely anti-gun,” Sears said, referencing public comments from Cutler in the past. “So let’s get all the things on the table. If you want to attack me, go ahead.”
Cutler: “I’m not trying to attack you.”
Sears: “Yeah you are. You have attacked me for years. You’re the one that ranked me extremely anti-gun. You’re the one, not me. And I have never introduced a gun bill in my life. I have protected gun owners’ rights in this state forever.”
About a dozen onlookers, packed into metal folding chairs lining the perimeter of the cramped first-floor committee room, stared quietly at the scene unfolding before them. A giant television camera, from WPTZ, panned back and forth between Cutler and Sears.
Sears, his gravelly voice still at a full yell, proceeded to talk about his work on bills dealing with shooting ranges and guns in schools.
“I stood there and worked with the NRA and the schools and made things happen. So don’t give me that B-S.”
Three seconds of silence passed. Cutler’s hands shook. And he began to speak, quietly.
“What I’m trying-”
Sears cut him off.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Sears said.
Cutler: “I’m not trying to threaten you.”
Sears: “And I’m not afraid of your group either, okay? Like some in this building.”
Cutler: “I am not trying to threaten you. I’m not trying to put you down.”
Sears: “You said I introduced a bill."
Cutler: “Dick, please, let me explain myself?"
Sears: “Go ahead.”
“For a while a now, there’s been a bill, and I thought it was a bill you were looking at, is felons in possession … It’s something all of us have thought about, not trying to stick anything on anybody. It’s just what I’m trying to explain. I’m actually I’m losing my train of thought here,” Cutler said.
Windsor Sen. Alice Nitka had heard enough.
“You know what?” Nitka said, addressing Sears and Cutler. “That’s really a private conversation that probably the two of you should have. Let’s go back to the question at hand.”
Sears’ voice relented. Cutler resumed his testimony. The tension slowly dissipated.
A few minutes later – by then Cutler had returned to his seat, and new witness had assumed the stand – Sears apologized.
“I think sometimes we get so involved in issues and so misconstrued as politicians and we just hit a breaking point,” Sears said. “It wasn’t appropriate for a chair of a committee, and it wasn’t appropriate for a member of the Senate.”
After adjourning the morning hearing, Sears turned to WPTZ reporter Stewart Ledbetter, who had been watching the exchange intently.
“You do what you have to do,” Sears said.
Cutler, meanwhile, walked to Sears after the hearing, offering his right hand.
Sears shook it vigorously, and they talked.