MONTPELIER — Following a pro-gun rally on Saturday that drew more than 200 Vermonters to the steps of the Statehouse, a Chittenden County senator has decided to withdraw his proposed ban on assault weapons.
Saying it’s become “painfully clear” that there’s little support in Montpelier “for this sort of bill,” Sen. Philip Baruth informed his Senate colleagues Sunday morning that he planned to kill his own legislation. The move came less than a week after he introduced the bill.
In a short written statement to media outlets, Baruth said he doesn’t want furor over the ban to erode support for other gun control measures.
“It’s … clear that focusing the debate on the banning of a certain class of weapons may already be overshadowing measures with greater consensus, like tightening background checks, stopping the exchange of guns for drugs, and closing gun show loopholes,” Baruth said.
The sudden turnabout, however, won’t quell consternation among opponents of the ban, who say they’ll continue watch closely over the Democratically controlled Legislature.
“Obviously this is a good step,” said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “But this is just the very earliest part of the legislative session, and we don’t know what else will emerge from the hopper on bills. So we’ll just wait and see.”
Indeed, Baruth’s decision to withdraw the controversial bill, known as S.32, won’t table the gun control issue in Montpelier this year. In the House, Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, and Adam Greshin, a Warren independent, are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a piece of legislation that will, most controversially, seek to ban ammunition clips containing more than 10 rounds.
Their bill also would require background checks for the purchase of firearms at gun shows, and codify in state law provisions already in federal statute. Federal provisions not currently in state law include prohibitions on gun ownership by: convicted felons; people dishonorably discharged from the military; people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves; and people against whom a judge has issued a “relief from abuse order” — a restraining order designed to protect victims of domestic violence.
“I know there’s an argument that (federal law) is really ATF oversight, however I think we all understand that the ATF does not have the kind of presence here that we can count on to enforce these laws in our communities,” Waite-Simpson said.
Waite-Simpson said she knows that the ban on high-capacity magazines will generate the most strident opposition.
“It’s in there because I felt it was important. I felt it was kind of a middle-of-the road proposition that at least addressed the killing capacity issue,” Waite-Simpson said this morning. “I don’t see how anybody can look at what happened in Newtown and not think the same thing could happen here in Vermont.”
But she says she enters the debate open to compromise.
“Is it going to stay in the bill? I don’t know,” she says. “If it’s something that’s getting in the way of these other, I think ,common sense measures, then maybe it’s something we don’t include.”
Hughes says attempts to limit the number of rounds in magazines are arbitrary and send the state down a slippery slope toward even more restrictive gun laws.
“Why not nine? Why not seven?” Hughes said. “It’s just always one more reduction, and it’s not hard to see where that leads to.”
Hughes says he also takes a skeptical view of efforts to incorporate federal statute into state law. He said Vermont should let federal law enforcement officers enforce federal laws. And, he said, not all felons necessarily deserve to be stripped of their constitutional right to bear arms.
“Does anyone care if the guy who cheated on his income taxes can hunt squirrels?” Hughes said. “What about the guy who steals four snow tires when he’s 18 and now is 50 and wants to go hunting? What’s the process for him to get his record clear so he can own a firearm?”
Sen. Dick Sears has also introduced a gun bill, centered mainly on putting into Vermont law provisions that already exist in federal statute, like the ban on gun ownership by felons.
“Which felons, of course, is something we need to talk about,” Sears said.
Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he also wants to look at Vermont’s lack of participation in a national database that collects, for purposes of background checks, the names of people who have been found mentally incompetent or not guilty by reason of insanity.
Sears had scheduled what was expected to be a very well attended public hearing on gun control issues for Feb. 7. He said he’s talking with other Senate colleagues about whether to proceed with the event, in light of Baruth’s decision to withdraw his bill.
“It would be rather unusual to hold a hearing on an (assault-weapons ban) that doesn’t exist, but we’ll see what people want to do,” Sears said.
Waite-Simpson says she won’t try to resuscitate Baruth’s failed bid at a ban on assault weapons.
“I really have been trying to listen to people who are not in the fringe group — people who own guns, who are hunters — and they really don’t think that there’s a great deal of understanding in the general population about what an assault weapon even is,” Waite-Simpson says. “And it’s really difficult to define what one is, so we are going the route of high-capacity magazines.”
That doesn’t mean Waite-Simpson wants to end the assault weapon conversation in the Statehouse. She and Greshin are already working with Sergeant at Arms Francis Brooks to stage some kind of assault weapons display in the Statehouse sometime this session.
“So legislators can come in and actually see what these things are and understand them a little better, so we all know what it is we’re talking about,” Waite-Simpson says.
Hughes said he thinks the more lawmakers learn about assault-style weapons, the better.
“People call these military-style weapons, and that’s just not the case,” Hughes said. “The military traded in their semiautomatics for automatics 50 years ago. There’s just a lot of ignorance out there about what kinds of guns we’re talking about, and who uses them for what.”
The pro-gun activists who spent their Saturday at the Statehouse may have dodged a state-specific ban in Vermont. However, President Barack Obama continues to push for a federal ban on both semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he opposes any state-specific attempts at gun control, but last week threw his support behind the president’s nationwide ban.
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