In Wake Of Charleston Shootings, No Plans To Push For Tighter Vermont Gun Laws

Jun 29, 2015

The shooting deaths of nine worshippers in a South Carolina church have spurred calls for tighter restrictions on gun ownership nationwide. But in Vermont, supporters of universal background checks say they won’t mount a concerted legislative push for the measure when lawmakers return to the Statehouse in 2016.

The fierce legislative debate over gun control laws earlier this year had its roots in the events of Dec. 14, 2012, when a young man in Newtown, Ct., fatally shot 20 school children. The incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School served to galvanize gun control advocates, and spurred the creation of a group called Gun Sense Vermont, which lobbied hard for the gun bill that passed in May.

Ann Braden, the Brattleboro mother who heads that group, says the shootings in Charleston could also serve as a catalyst for policy reform.

“You know, President Obama said about how this doesn’t happen in any other country. And it’s clear that the status quo is not acceptable,” Braden says. “This is not something that we should be allowing to happen, and it’s not something that we should be getting used to.”

For Gun Sense, the clearest path “to help keep guns out of the wrong hands” is an expansion of the background checks that would-be buyers go through before acquiring a firearm. But a renewed legislative push likely won’t be coming anytime soon. And after losing the fight for universal background checks in this past session, Braden, and the lawmakers leading the effort, say they’ll likely hold off in 2016. 

After losing the fight for universal background checks in this past session, the head of Gun Sense Vermont, and the lawmakers leading the effort, say they'll likely hold off in 2016.

“I do think we can strengthen background checks at some point in the future,” says Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth. “I think the odds for it in the next session are not good, frankly.”

Baruth, a Chittenden County Democrat, assumed a lead role in the push for the gun control bill signed into law by the governor last month. The bill made it illegal under state law for people convicted of certain felonies to buy or possess a firearm. It also requires courts to send to a national database the names of people it determines are a danger to themselves or others.

Notably, however, a provision calling for expanded background checks failed to make the cut. 

Senate President John Campbell helped shepherd the pared-down bill through the Legislature, and says that getting the votes to pass it required promises not to reintroduce the background check measure in 2016.

"I do think we can strengthen background checks at some point in the future. I think the odds for it in the next session are not good, frankly." - Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth

“I guess unfortunately in the world of politics, especially where there are such diametrically opposed positions, there has to be compromise,” Campbell says.

Evan Hughes, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, an NRA affiliate opposed to expanded background checks, says his organization will continue to oppose expanded background checks. 
Hughes notes that the alleged Charleston shooter purchased the firearm legally, after passing a background check. And he says expanding background checks won’t make anyone safer.

“Laws enacted in reaction to tragedies are not products of sound public policy,” Hughes says.

In Vermont, Hughes says there’s no evidence of a problem that needs solving.

“We have constantly one of the lowest violent-crime rates in the nation. We consistently have one of the best gun-safety records in the country,” Hughes says. “There isn’t a problem here that needs to be corrected by new legislation.”

"Laws enacted in reaction to tragedies are not products of sound public policy." - Evan Hughes, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs president

While they won’t be as active in the Statehouse in 2016, Braden says Gun Sense Vermont is still very much committed to universal background checks, and will be working behind the scenes to advance the cause. She says the group will raise money for a political action committee, as it did in the 2014 campaign cycle, to support like-minded candidates in the next election. 

“So we’ll raise money for the PAC again. And we have this grassroots machine across the state that will really be there, doing phone banking and helping out supportive candidates however they need it,” Braden says.

Braden says the strategy will help cultivate a political landscape that will be more conducive to background-check legislation in the next biennium.