RANDOLPH — About 200 gun rights advocates traveled to Randolph Tuesday evening to weigh in on proposed gun legislation that they say violates their right to bear arms.
The death of a 23-year-old Essex man by suicide last year has many lawmakers pushing for a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases. Andrew Black took his own life hours after purchasing a firearm, and his parents — and many public health officials — say a waiting period will help protect Vermonters from acting impulsively on suicidal thoughts.
For Monkton resident Scott Chapman, the question before lawmakers this year boils down to this:
“What we have before us is a pure civil rights discussion of whether or not our right on the Second Amendment, and Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution, is a right as equal to our other individual rights,” Chapman told lawmakers at a public hearing Tuesday.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution couches the right to bear arms within the framework of a “well-regulated Militia.” But Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution is more unambiguous in its construction: “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defence (sic) of themselves and the State.”
It’s sacred language to gun rights advocates like Chapman, and he told lawmakers that they’re treading on gun rights in ways they wouldn’t dream of restricting other constitutional protections.
“How about the media here? How about they have a 48-hour waiting period to produce the 6 o’clock news and have to ask government permission to exercise their First Amendment rights?” Chapman said.
Chapman’s comments won him a round of applause from the crowd that turned out for a public hearing at Vermont Technical College, where opponents of proposed gun legislation vastly outnumbered supporters.
The 48-hour waiting period isn’t the only proposed gun bill in Montpelier this year. But it’s the one that appears to have the most momentum in the State House right now.
That’s because several prominent lawmakers, like Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, think it’ll help reduce suicide rates that are among the highest in New England.
“I personally support the waiting period provision, although I’m open to the length of duration,” Ashe said Tuesday.
Ashe said he rejects that idea that a waiting period constitutes a “restriction” on Vermonters’ right to bear arms.
“It doesn’t create any prohibition on particular gun purchases. It doesn’t create a class of people ineligible to purchase them,” Ashe said. “It says that there will be a brief pause between the time you go in and purchase the gun and when you take possession of it.”
Even if the 48-hour waiting period is a restriction, Christopher Ashley, of Norwich, told lawmakers there’s a legitimate public interest in imposing it.
Ashley said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, called District of Columbia v. Heller, affirmed that people have a right to own a gun for self-defense.
“But it also ruled that this right is not unlimited, and the government can place reasonable restrictions on that right,” Ashley said Tuesday.
A law that could reduce the likelihood that someone will use a gun to harm themselves or others, Ashley said, is a worthy restriction.
“You have a right to weapons, but there’s a right too for the society to have reasonable rules to protect each other,” Ashley said. “And I regard S.22 as a reasonable effort to protect society as a whole.”
Many gun advocates who turned out for the public hearing on Tuesday rejected the notion that a waiting period would reduce suicide rates. But even those willing to concede the argument, like Monkton resident Justin Lindholm, said it still doesn’t warrant passage of the bill.
“You can’t just take away people’s rights to save a life here and there,” Lindholm said.
For other critics of the legislation, the opposition is rooted as much in economics as constitutional philosophy.
Devon Craig, with the Barre Fish and Game Club, said the organization has sponsored an annual gun show for the past 37 years.
“A waiting period would be the end of the gun show as it depends mostly on spontaneous buys,” Craig said. “And it would drastically affect the revenue to local business such as restaurants, hotels, motels and advertising services.”
Lawmakers last year passed the most sweeping gun legislation in Vermont’s history. The Senate Judiciary Committee could vote on this waiting period proposal as early as Friday.