During the Vietnam War, a popular slogan among the war’s opponents said, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.” That saying came to mind in January, when the media reported that state Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, had withdrawn his gun-control bill for lack of support among his legislative colleagues. The bill would have prohibited the manufacture, possession, and transfer of semiautomatic assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition clips, and would have made it a crime to leave a firearm accessible to a child who then used it to injure or kill another person or commit a crime.
Comments made about the Baruth bill by several Democratic senators indicated they were not ready to lead in preventing gun violence in Vermont. One said he opposed gun control in Vermont because the state is rural and firearms are part of rural life. Since when are assault rifles with high-capacity ammunition clips necessary to rural life? The late Tunbridge farmer Fred Tuttle spoke wisely on this subject during his 1998 U.S. Senate campaign against Patrick Leahy. Tuttle’s campaign was largely tongue-in-cheek (he voted for Leahy), but he hit the bull’s eye on gun control by observing that the only guns a Vermonter needs are a deer rifle in hunting season and a shotgun for shooting woodchucks in the garden. He would have scoffed at the notion that a Vermonter needs an assault rifle to defend himself against his government in the freest country in the world.
So if Vermont’s rural nature should guide its gun policies, banning assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines is perfectly compatible with life in the Green Mountains.
Another senator said he would have rejected the Baruth bill because he did not want the Senate to have a reactive approach to the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown. In light of Americans’ refusal to be proactive on guns, though, by permanently banning assault rifles and the accompanying ammunition magazines long ago, what choice do we have other than to react to the continuing slaughter of our children? Besides, being reactive is not necessarily ineffective. For example, Australia’s reaction to a 1996 shooting spree that left 35 people dead was to ban all automatic and semiautomatic weapons and institute background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases. The effect was dramatic; in the decade before 1996, Australia had experienced 11 mass shootings, but since changing its guns laws, Australia has had no mass shootings.
The premature death of Baruth’s bill made me wonder why our political leaders in Vermont are unwilling to lead on the gun issue despite this state’s historic political courage on issues ranging from slavery to gay rights, especially when the prospects for federal gun legislation are doubtful at best. Just as I had begun to despair, though, the Castleton Polling Institute released the results of its Feb. 21 poll. Among the respondents, all Vermonters, 75 percent support requiring background checks of persons who buy guns at gun shows, 66 percent support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, 61 percent support banning further sales of assault weapons, and 54 percent even support making the ownership of an assault rifle illegal.
To be sure, the Castleton poll found differences of opinion between Vermonters who own guns and their neighbors who do not, and between Democrats and Republicans.
Although gun owners are less supportive of all potential gun regulations, 71 percent favor background checks at gun shows, 82 percent back stricter reporting requirements for mental-health professionals relative to the national instant background check system (NICS), and 55 percent would even ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Similarly, Republicans are less positive than Democrats about gun regulations, but 61 percent of Republicans support background checks at gun shows and 86 percent support requiring mental-health professionals to report to the NICS system patients whom they perceive to be potentially violent.
Thus, Vermonters are well ahead of their political leaders on gun control. If additional evidence of that was necessary, it arrived on Town Meeting Day, when several towns passed warrant articles banning assault weapons, requiring background checks for all gun purchases, and mandating criminal penalties for “straw purchasers,” who buy guns for individuals who cannot legally do so.
Meanwhile, in Montpelier, several bills that, taken together, would accomplish all the goals of the Baruth bill except banning assault rifles, are languishing in committee. Although they do not address assault rifles, passing any of them would represent progress in combating gun violence in Vermont.
Unfortunately, none of them is likely to pass this year because of slow progress through the committee process and Gov. Shumlin’s lack of enthusiasm for gun legislation. Still, as the Vietnam War showed, nothing moves politicians like a tsunami of public support. Now, as then, if the people lead, the leaders, eventually, will follow.
Brian Porto is a professor at Vermont Law School. He lives in Windsor.MORE IN Commentary
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