One year after a contentious public debate led to historic gun reforms in Vermont, lawmakers have proposed eight bills that would make more changes to the state’s firearm restrictions.
Gov. Phil Scott said last week that he didn’t believe new gun laws should be a priority. “It’s not that I’m saying no,” he said, “but I’m saying we have other areas that we should be focusing on.”
But lawmakers believe these modifications would address urgent issues, regardless of last year’s efforts.
“If we pass a piece of gun legislation, we’re supposed to be eternally grateful, never look to tighten our gun safety laws ever again,” says Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden. “I just don’t see it that way.”
Baruth is sponsoring legislation that would mandate a 48-hour waiting period on all firearm sales, a “safe storage” requirement for gun owners, and a ban on 3-D printed guns and instructions. (A separate bill in the House would mandate a 72-hour waiting period.)
Baruth believes waiting periods could help address what he calls a “quiet epidemic” of gun-assisted suicides. Vermont has a 35 percent higher suicide rate than the national average — the focus of a panel discussion in Montpelier this week, and an issue highlighted after the high-profile death by suicide of Andrew Black last year.
Another House bill, sponsored by Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, would require courts to include relinquishment of guns in temporary relief from abuse orders. Grad believes it could save the lives of domestic abuse victims.
“We did do a lot last year, and I appreciate that,” she says. “But domestic violence homicides are still an issue in Vermont.”
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, has proposed a different set of bills: four measures aimed at relaxing the magazine limit established last year. His legislation would provide exemptions to the ban on high-capacity magazines, and increase the limit to 30 rounds.
“I think a lot of what we did last year was reactionary,” Rodgers says. “I hope we have cooler heads this year.”
On this week’s podcast, Baruth, Grad and Rodgers describe why they plan to push ahead with new gun proposals.
Last year in front of the Statehouse, flanked by dozens of lawmakers and state officials, Governor Phil Scott signed a historic set of changes to Vermont’s gun laws.
Scott: I know these discussions have been difficult, emotional and complex. Barriers that frequently lead to inaction. But this is not the time to do what’s easy. It’s the time to do what’s right.
The ceremony followed weeks of debate about the new restrictions. Now, in 2019, some lawmakers want to reopen that debate, either to tighten the state’s gun laws further or to loosen some of the restrictions that just took effect. At least eight new proposals have already been put on the table.
Baruth: We passed some groundbreaking gun legislation last year that made us, rather than the state with the weakest gun laws, we’re now in the bottom third in terms of, I think, of the safety of our gun laws. So we have a little more work to do.
This is Senator Phil Baruth. He’s sponsored a number of gun safety bills in past years. Right now, he’s pitching two proposals.
Baruth: S.22 is a two part bill: The first part is waiting period of 48 hours between when you apply to buy a weapon and when you receive that weapon. Second part is called safe storage. And the idea is that the owner of a firearm needs to be in control of that firearm. If they have it on their person, that’s one thing, but otherwise it needs to be locked up or unable to be fired when it’s out of their control.
His second bill would ban 3D-printed guns and the instructions to make them.
Baruth: And the reason for that is pretty obvious. 3D-printing of guns makes a mockery of the background check system, and given all the work that we put into the universal background check legislation last year, five years worth of work, I wanted to make sure that someone couldn’t just hit print on their 3D printer and do an end run around that legislation.
In a separate bill, House member Martin LaLonde is proposing a 72-hour waiting period. And his colleague Maxine Grad is reintroducing a bill that didn’t advance last year.
Grad: The intent is to prevent domestic violence-related homicides.
This bill would require people who have been accused of domestic abuse to turn over their guns as part of a temporary relief from abuse order.
Grad: That’s really the heat of the moment. It’s right when when the abuse has occurred. And there’s lots of data that that really is where temper is, and is really the most dangerous time for a victim. And while judges can order relinquishment of firearms, now, they don’t have to, and so it’s not consistent statewide. And one of the things that I’m very interested in, we call it geographic justice. Really it shouldn’t matter where a victim lives, we should really have access to laws consistently throughout the state.
Meanwhile, Senator John Rogers has proposed four bills.
Rogers: S.1, S.2, S.3 and S.13.
— all of which are changes to the magazine limit passed last year.
Rogers: So the main intent of the first one is we basically outlawed shooting competitions, because the majority of the firearms that the competitors use have magazines that are larger than what’s allowed in Vermont now. So there’s a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of economic impact that’s not going to come here anymore, because those shooting competitions are going to go somewhere else.
Another bill redefines magazine up to 30 rounds. Right now it’s 10 for a long gun and 15 for a handgun. So that would bring it back up to 30, because what the bill did was eliminated the importation of over 60 firearms because they come with a standard magazine that is larger than what Vermont law allows now.
And then the third concept, which is in two different bills and two different ways of getting at it, is we inadvertently made it so folks who have magazines larger than what is now allowed cannot pass them down to their children and family members. So I can give my kids my rifle, but I can’t give them the magazines that go with it, which I don’t think is right. I don’t believe the magazine ban is constitutional in my mind, and I hope the whole thing gets overturned. But in the meantime, if it stands, I want to be able to pass down my magazines, with my rifles, to my children.
Governor Scott has already said that after last year’s changes, he’s not enthusiastic about spending more time on gun safety bills.
Scott: I think we’ve done a lot in terms of gun safety measures over the last year, as you might recall, and I think we can focus on other areas where we’re focusing on mental health and so forth, rather than change laws at this point. So I’m it’s not that I’m saying no, but I’m saying we have other areas that we should be focusing on.
But the lawmakers pushing for new reforms say these are still urgent issues.
Grad: We just need to keep having the conversation. We did do a lot last year, and I appreciate that. But domestic violence-related homicides are still an issue in Vermont.
Baruth: We’ve come to realize that suicide is at epidemic proportions in the state of Vermont. And most of those suicides take place with firearms.
Baruth says suicide prevention is a major driver behind these waiting period bills. He and LaLonde, who’s sponsoring the House bill, both attended a roundtable discussion this week about the connection between guns and suicide.
Bell: The youth suicide death rate in Vermont is high. It’s always higher than average. And in fact, it’s much higher than our neighboring states.
Dr. Rebecca Bell is a pediatric physician at the UVM Medical Center. She told the audience that home gun ownership is one of the most reliable predictors of the suicide death rate in different states.
Bell: Suicide tends to be a very impulsive act, more impulsive than than most folks realize. When researchers ask young people who have survived a near-fatal suicide attempt, they ask, “what was the time lapse from when you first thought about it to when you acted?” Most said less than an hour.
Especially among young people, we know suicide attempts tend to happen within 24 hours of a crisis. So that link between impulsivity and suicide is really strong.
And in fact, those who use more lethal methods tend to be doing so more impulsively. And this, again, is counterintuitive. So lots of folks think, well, if they used a gun, they were very serious about ending their lives. And actually, researchers find that those who use firearms have planned their suicide attempt for a shorter amount of time. They tend to not leave suicide notes, for instance. They’re less likely to have a history of mental illness compared to people who might use a different method, but have a history of impulsivity.
Baruth: I think something like the waiting period, and to a lesser extent, safe storage, it keeps the discussion where it should be right now, which is pure gun safety, especially where kids are concerned.
I do wonder about, one thing we heard last year was this idea of sort of a slippery slope argument. That with the gun restrictions introduced last year, that that was just kind of the the opening, that then lawmakers every year would continue to pile on new restrictions. Do you worry about introducing new restrictions this year as sort of playing into that perception?
Baruth: Well, I would say that there’s a well-worn playbook, no matter what legislation you’re trying to pass. It’s always a “slippery slope.” It’s always a “solution in search of a problem,” it’s always going to produce a flood of lawsuits. So those are the first three arguments, not only with guns, but with, you know, environmental laws or really anything that we try to do in those buildings. People who oppose them go to those three arguments first.
If we pass a piece of gun legislation, we’re supposed to be eternally grateful, never look to tighten our gun safety laws ever again. I just don’t see it that way. Guns are deadly weapons, and to the extent that they can get into the hands of children or people who shouldn’t have them — domestic abusers, people with felony violent convictions — we should be keeping them out of their hands. It doesn’t matter that we found one way to do it last year, if they can get them another way, we should be talking about that this year.
In that case, where do you see an end? Like, where would you step back and say, “You know what, now we’ve done enough here in Vermont, we’ve got gun laws that are safe?”
Baruth: I think it would be great if I didn’t have to warn my kids about mass shootings in the mall. I think it would be great if we didn’t do active shooter drills in our elementary schools. While those things are going on socially, I will be talking about gun safety in this building. Beyond that, in terms of, let’s say, suicide, if our statistics came down, and we were — rather than having a statistical problem, if we were one of the safest places in terms of firearm suicide — then I’d say it’s time to maybe let that conversation go. But we’re not. We’re in the midst of the mass shooting problem, and a kind of quiet epidemic of gun-assisted suicide.
One other thing I’ve always been curious about is that you personally, you’ve become one of the leading voices for increasing gun safety here in the state. But outside the Statehouse, you write novels, you’re an English professor. Where do those two worlds intersect for you?
Baruth: Yeah, I don’t know. I would say that in my other life, I’m a teacher, and I’m a novelist as part of being a teacher at the University of Vermont. So I’m with kids all the time of, you know, different ages.
I have kids at home, I go to work at UVM and I’m with young people, and so when the mass shootings and Sandy Hook and Aurora and other places were happening, it hit me in several ways. Virginia Tech was a college campus shooting. We have had drills on my college campus for mass shootings, my kids are doing active shooter drills in their schools, so maybe I’m more plugged into the anxieties of very young people, but also college-age students, than are most people.
All of us in this building translate our real lives into our own priorities for legislation, and those are some of mine.
Meanwhile, Senator Rogers believes last year’s magazine limit was hasty, and he’s hoping his colleagues agree.
Rogers: That bill, if you remember, was built by amendments on the floor, which number one, is a poor way to legislate. I thought they were, from my perspective, not intended. A lot of them were not discussed on the floor of the Senate, there was a whole bunch of issues that we weren’t allowed to vote on, and take positions, so Vermonters knew where their senators stood on these several issues that I’ve reintroduced, and I think Vermonters deserve to know if their senator doesn’t think they should be able to give their legally-owned property to their child.
I think Vermonters deserve to have the Senate take a vote on that. So all these aspects are what I believe are oversights in the bill.
Is it just about getting people on the record? Or do you think that these actually stand a chance?
Rogers: I hope they stand a chance. I think are very common sense bills, of course some people, their end goal is to eliminate firearms, and so there’s some people that aren’t going to go along with them. But I think there’s a lot of senators that that will go along with them.
Do you think any of the political calculus around it has changed since last year? Do you think this circumstances are different in any way?
Rogers: I don’t think the circumstances are a lot different. I hope we have cooler heads this year. I think a lot of what we did last year was reactionary. I think it should be done by the committee process.
And, you know, quite frankly, I think people like myself in the community that owns firearms feels like we’re now a marginalized people. We’re now the folks who you can discriminate against. We can’t discriminate against people based on their religion, sex, color, or sexual orientation, but we feel like we’re being discriminated against because of our belief, even though we’re law-abiding citizens. We’ve never hurt anybody. For hundreds of years, we’ve had these rights, and now that with the demographic shift, new people have come to Vermont, and they don’t have the same heritage, traditions, values, that we have, and they’re starting to erode those rights. Part of my feeling is that no good has ever come from taking rights from good people.
When you talk about this limit as people’s rights being taken away, are there ways that since that’s been put in place that you’ve seen the detrimental effects of it — this specific measure that you’re looking to kind of roll back or relax a little bit? Have you seen the detrimental effects of that already on the ground?
Rogers: Well, the the effects that I’ve seen on the ground is that there’s over 60 firearms that are no longer available in Vermont. It’s my perspective, and I stated this on the floor, that Vermonters who have had these traditions are still going to get those firearms. So basically, all they have to do is drive to New Hampshire. So we’re sending more business away from our firearm store operators and sending it to New Hampshire. They’re going to go buy those guns. And those same people who are generally good, law-abiding citizens are now going to violate a law.
I have always been a believer in equal rights and treatment for everyone. When I was in the House, I voted for marriage equality and ended up losing my seat for it. But it was the right thing to do. And every group who has been marginalized over my tenure in the Legislature, I have stuck up for equality and equal treatment, and fair treatment of everybody.
And what I found ironic is when it came to a value that I have, this is the, you know, the Second Amendment, the use of these firearms that a lot of people want to ban and the magazines that people did ban. That’s something I both value and use. And very few people in this building do. Very few people own firearms. Few of them know what they’re talking about when we talk about firearms, yet they’re afraid of them and they want to ban them. And what I found ironic was I stood up for all those other marginalized people. When it came to something that was important to me, none of them were none of them were willing to help me out. Nobody from those groups that I stood up for came forward to to stand up for something that I believe in.
My belief is, without the Second Amendment, we lose our other freedoms. It is the basis, it’s how we how we won our freedom, it’s how we protect our freedom of speech and freedom of the press and freedom of religion and all those other things.
But you’re not discouraged by the fact that the those people haven’t stood up for you in the past? You’re going to keep proposing measures like this just because that’s the right thing to do?
Rogers: Oh yeah. I’ll never stop fighting for people’s constitutional rights. All of them. This one just is adamantly as you know, I don’t care what religion a person believes in, I’ll fight for their religion, or people’s free speech. But no, I think I think that was a violation of the Second Amendment and our Article 16 rights, and I will keep fighting until it’s corrected.
Got it. Thank you, senator.
Rogers: You’re very welcome. Thank you.