Young Vermont Gun Activist Uses First Amendment To Defend Second Amendment

Apr 10, 2018

In just a few months, young people — some who can’t yet vote – have led the U.S. and Vermont on a dizzying pace of change around gun control legislation. Far less visible are the students who favor gun rights.

Propelled by victims of a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the gun control movement turned out hundreds of thousands of protesters last month under the banner "March For Our Lives."

But not all young people favor stricter gun laws. In Vermont, a strong culture of hunting and gun ownership has some youth challenging the current, popular political thinking around gun control.

More from VPR — Vermont's Gun Debate Comes To UVM Campus [March 9]

Stowe High School junior Sam Robertson wants to add his voice to the debate about gun control. He says his views are not usually what you hear.

"Seeing a lot of the news coverage – and just through my experiences in high school – that the students that are for the tightening of gun laws are getting a bigger platform to speak their beliefs," he says. "And those who aren’t, aren’t really having their stage to speak on the matter."

"... The students that are for the tightening of gun laws are getting a bigger platform to speak their beliefs. And those who aren’t, aren’t really having their stage to speak on the matter."— Sam Robertson, Stowe High School junior

Robertson’s family owns firearms, and he hunts with friends and their parents. He embraces both the Vermont tradition of gun ownership and its history of lax gun regulation.

Robertson actually doesn’t object to much that's in S.55, the most controversial of the recently passed Vermont gun bills which Gov. Phil Scott is scheduled to sign Wednesday. The legislation raises the legal age to own a firearm, applies universal background checks, and bans bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.

More from VPR's Vermont Edition — What's In Vermont's New Gun Control Bill? Your Questions Answered [April 3]

But Robertson does think that’s as far as Vermont needs to go. So when he saw New York Times article quoting a young Vermont gun control activist saying the bills passed by the Legislature were "a good first start," he decided to exercise his First Amendment for the Second Amendment.

“We felt that our voices hadn't been heard. That it’s being perceived that a unanimous support of Vermont high school students is against, you know, firearm ownership and ... rightful usage,” Robertson says. “So we decided to fly the Gadsden flag, which originated in the Revolutionary War as a symbol to, you know, resist government infringement on rights, and was used by some of the original patriots fighting against King George.”

The flag features a coiled rattlesnake snake above the words “Don’t Tread On Me.” Despite its roots in American history, the flag is somewhat controversial because it’s been embraced by conservatives and the Tea Party movement.

Robertson was gratified by the reception. He says even students who back more gun restrictions supported his right to fly the flag from his truck in the high school parking lot.

“Yeah. Way more than I would ever expect, too,” he says. “There were a lot of students that ... made it very clear that they didn’t agree with us on the stance of firearms, but were in full support of our freedom of speech.”

"There were a lot of students that ... made it very clear that they didn’t agree with us on the stance of firearms, but were in full support of our freedom of speech."

But some parents did object, and that afternoon, a school official strongly urged Robertson to remove the flag. Stowe Superintendent Tracy Wrend says the flag caused "significant disruption" at the school. She says she's asked students to engage in dialogue about how to best express their views.

“We are proud of all our students for their initiative, passion and willingness to be active in voicing their views,” Wrend said by email. 

For Robertson, it’s been an education in being part of the minority – and in trying to educate his peers.

“You know, I think so many people who are for all this gun restriction are forgetting that so many people in Vermont use guns on a daily basis for hunting and sporting purposes, and it’s a family of tradition that goes back for, you know, centuries in this state,” he says.

And that message is one that he hopes will be honored, and heard, in the debates ahead.