MONTPELIER, Vt. — For decades, Vermont, a largely rural state with a long history of gun ownership and a low crime rate, has resisted calls to restrict gun ownership. But in February, the attitude that gun restrictions weren’t needed changed in less than a day.
The day after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, told a reporter that he felt the state’s almost nonexistent gun laws were adequate. But later that same day, he learned of what police called a near-miss school shooting in Fair Haven, a community of 3,000 along the state’s border with New York.
Police said former student Jack Sawyer had threatened to shoot up his school, hoping for more dead than the 32 killed at the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. Two days after the Parkland shooting and a day after he said Vermont’s gun laws were adequate, a visibly shaken Scott, a lifelong gun owner and hunter, called on the Legislature to look at “gun safety” laws as part of a broader package of efforts to prevent violence.
The bitter debate that followed pitted hundreds of gun advocates, many of whom would line the Statehouse halls while wearing hunter-orange vests, against young people and others who felt it was time for Vermont to do something to regulate firearms.
Standing on the Statehouse steps on April 11, while gun supporters jeered and supporters cheered, Scott signed into law legislation that raised the age to buy firearms, banned high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, called for background checks for most private gun sales and made it easier to take guns from people who pose a threat.
“The governor opened the door, he whistled and practically sent the gun control people flowers,” said Bill Moore, a firearms policy analyst for the Vermont Traditions Coalition, which has fought restrictions in Vermont for years, and is urging Vermonters to vote for pro-gun candidates.
But experts doubt the push to get the gun advocates to the polls will hurt Scott.
“I don’t think the gun issue is going to hurt Scott at all,” said retired Middlebury College political science Prof Eric Davis. “There may be a small number of conservative Republicans who simply stay home.”
Even in a year that included yet another mass school shooting and an unprecedented level of gun-control activism, state legislatures across the country fell back to largely predictable and partisan patterns, according to an Associated Press review of all firearms-related legislation passed this year. While Vermont and Florida passed gun restrictions, some states pushed back with pro-gun policies.
The most serious charges against Sawyer were dismissed and the case was sent to juvenile court.
When Scott was asked at a recent gubernatorial debate if – given the legal disposition of the Sawyer case – his call for gun restrictions might have been an overreaction, the governor said no.
“He was planning this. It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of which day and it was going to happen soon, right after Parkland,” Scott said during the Sept. 14 debate at the Tunbridge Worlds’ Fair.
Scott’s position prompted praise from his Democratic opponent, Christine Hallquist.
“I do want to compliment the governor on signing that gun legislation,” Hallquist said.
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