As debate was ending in the Vermont State House last March and the Legislature was nearing final approval of laws that would impose the first serious restrictions on gun ownership in the state, Democratic State Sen. John Rodgers, of Glover, famously lamented, “I think maybe if we pass this bill, maybe it is over, maybe the Vermont I grew up in is over and it’s changed.”
In fact, Vermont has changed. Some changes, most of us who are fortunate enough to live here would agree, are for the better, and some are for the worse (people will disagree on which are which). Sen. Rodgers grew up on a dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, there were 27,061 farms in Vermont in 1935 (the vast majority of them dairy farms). By 1964, there were 9,247. As of January 2019, the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food & Markets tallied 697 dairies. And the days of 25-cow herds, hand milking and enclosed barns are long gone; farms with the best chance of survival in a nationally competitive industry have 100-cow herds and more, and are largely located in places like Addison and Franklin counties, where pastureland is abundant, not in the hill country of the NEK.
The maple-products industry has changed, too. Vermont’s landscape is still dotted with picturesque sugarhouses, steam pouring from their chimney pipes during sugaring season (which is just around the corner!). But there are few buckets hanging under tree taps anymore — they’ve been replaced by tap lines strung through the forest, in some places brightly colored and as wide as the human hand — veritable highways of sap. Even more significantly, there are retail maple-product stores that boil water to generate steam, not sap, during the annual Open House Weekend, because they rely on large wholesalers to provide most of their syrup. It’s still authentic Vermont syrup, and it’s still great. But the concept of “Big Maple” comes to mind.
These signature Vermont industries, which aren’t just industries but are also cultural touchstones for our state, aren’t the only ways Vermont has changed. There are wind turbines on mountain ridges, and sprawling solar arrays upon the landscape. Tiny local schoolhouses have long since been abandoned for larger facilities serving a wider region. Under Act 46, consolidation continues. Locally owned stores, too often, are being replaced by national chains, making parts of Vermont look like Anywhere, USA. Climate change, slowly and stealthily, has begun to alter our landscape, change the duration of our seasons and impact wildlife (a plague of ticks diminishing our moose herd).
Then there’s the opiate crisis, wreaking havoc on communities large and small, urban and rural. Last week, not for the first time, federal charges were brought in Montpelier against men accused of trading crack cocaine in Vermont for guns that were used for criminal purposes in Boston.
Sen. Rodgers recently introduced four gun-related bills in the state Senate. His Democratic colleague, Sen. Philip Baruth, of Burlington, has introduced three others, and in the Vermont House, Reps. Martin LaLonde (D-Chittenden) and Maxine Grad (D-Washington) have offered their own variations. Baruth’s proposals include a 48-hour waiting period between when people purchase guns and when they can actually obtain them (LaLonde’s bill extends it to 72 hours). A driving factor is that suicide is frequently an impulsive act, and statistically the chances of survival are enormously greater if firearms aren’t available. Troublingly, Vermont has a higher suicide rate than the national average.
Separately, Baruth has called for a ban on 3-D printed guns, while Grad, in her House bill, proposes the automatic removal of guns from owners under relief-from-abuse orders. These should be no-brainers for the Legislature.
Rodgers’ Senate bills go in the other direction. They would increase the limits on magazine sizes imposed by the successful 2018 legislation. Rodgers argues that Vermont will lose revenues from shooting competitions that employ larger-capacity magazines. And many have pointed out that the weapons and magazines outlawed here are easily available across the river in New Hampshire.
What will speak louder to our Legislature: lost revenue, infringements on customs and long-held expectations by firearms owners, or efforts to counter the mayhem erupting around us (and threatened within our own borders)?
Vermont has changed. We love this state for its small-town intimacy, its beauty and its dogged, willful practice of true democracy. But Vermont in the 21st century is a haven, a refuge, within the world, not from the world.
And even here we must legislate for the world we’re in, not the world we remember.