MONTPELIER — Vermont’s usually opinionated governor has gone uncharacteristically silent on at least one hot-button controversy: a federal ban on assault weapons.
A school shooting last month that claimed the lives of 20 kindergarten students in Newtown, Conn., has sparked a national conversation about the adequacy of the nation’s gun laws. Asked repeatedly since the incident whether he thinks Congress should impose a ban on assault rifles, or the high-capacity magazines that maximize their firepower, Shumlin has deflected.
“What I think doesn’t matter,” Shumlin said of his non-stance during a news conference Thursday.
On the issue of state-based gun laws, Shumlin has been far clearer, saying he opposes any attempts in Montpelier to restrict Vermonters’ access to guns. While Shumlin on Thursday said he “welcomes the debate,” he thinks state-specific laws designed to avert tragedies like the one in Newtown are misguided.
“Because you can go buy it in New Hampshire or another state or on the Internet,” Shumlin said. “My point is we need a 50-state solution. We’re not an island.”
Shumlin said that in areas like renewable energy, health care and gay rights, it has made sense for Vermont to assume a leadership position nationally.
“What I feel very strongly is it’s up to me to lead when the federal government isn’t,” Shumlin said. “The federal government is not leading on single-payer health care — they won’t even say the word. They are not leading on renewables — most of them (in the Republican-controlled U.S. House) don’t believe in climate change.”
On the issue of gun control, however, Shumlin said Thursday that President Barack Obama has demonstrated a commitment to act.
“The last I saw the President of the United States held a press conference and asked Vice President (Joe) Biden to lead a group to come up with a national policy to deal with the crisis we have before us,” Shumlin said. “So I have confidence in them to do their job.”
Asked whether he believes the federal solution should include “some restrictions” on guns, Shumlin said, “Let’s see what they come up with.”
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said Shumlin’s reluctance to enter the gun-control fray might stem from a desire not to distract from his core legislative agenda.
He said it also doesn’t fit well into his broader political strategy.
“He wants to govern as a fiscal conservative … and continue to appeal to voters on the left on issues like marijuana decriminalization, death with dignity, health care reform,” Davis said. “And I think he just sees the gun issue as not fitting in with his overall political strategy.”
Heralded as a defender of the Second Amendment by the National Rifle Association, Shumlin earlier this fall won the endorsement of the gun lobby’s political arm, which also contributed to his re-election campaign.
In its Oct. 5 endorsement announcement, the NRA cited Shumlin’s past opposition to “storage requirements of firearms and … punitive taxes on lead ammunition.” The organization also lauded him for supporting “the creation and development of publicly accessible shooting ranges.”
“Peter Shumlin has demonstrated his support for the Second Amendment,” said Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA. “We urge all NRA members, gun owners, and sportsmen in Vermont to vote Peter Shumlin for Governor on November 6.”
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