Gun rights advocates Sunday gathered on the Statehouse steps for a three-hour rally to oppose votes the Legislature could take in the next two months about guns.
The protesters wore blaze orange hats, held signs, waved “Don’t tread on me” flags and cheered for speakers who called on lawmakers to preserve Vermont’s gun laws, which are regarded among the most lenient in the nation.
Organizers said approximately 700 individuals attended, based on the number of raffle tickets handed out. About 200 were on the steps at 2 p.m.
Gun owners at the rally said protecting their right to bear arms is about more than hunting.
“I wanted to show my support for the Second Amendment and show my displeasure in the politicians that want to slowly erode our rights as individual to protect ourselves from criminals and, if it had to come to it, our politicians,” said Arthur Wood of Waterford.
The advocates gathered to protest two gun-related measures that could come up for a vote before the legislative session ends in May.
The first is a possible change to the Burlington city charter. Voters in the Queen City last week approved three measures that would tighten gun ordinances.
Lawmakers typically quickly rubber-stamp municipal charter changes, but in this case, legislators have said they may delay approval of the Burlington ordinances until next session.
Protesters Sunday called on legislators to act now, long before the November elections. They also booed Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Democrat who has proposed several unsuccessful gun control measures and has attempted to find middle ground on the issue with representatives of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
The activists also demonstrated against a measure designed to create better storage facilities for firearms surrendered by people subject to relief from abuse orders.
A broad fee bill, H.735, contains a provision that would allow sheriffs to create guidelines and charge a fee to store surrendered guns. The bill also authorizes federally licensed firearms dealers to hold the guns.
Guns are often held by friends or relatives because of a lack of safe storage facilities. Advocates for victims of domestic violence, law enforcement officials and others say this option is insufficient and potentially dangerous.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a gun rights advocate, supports the gun storage provision.
“The governor is optimistic that this common sense approach, similar to provisions in other states, will prevail in the Legislature,” Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen said Monday in an email.
The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said it initially supported the measure but now is unsatisfied with the current version of the bill, which has passed the House floor and is before the Senate Finance Committee.
Gun Owners of Vermont opposes the bill altogether. An attorney for the group, Cindy Hill, wrote a legal analysis of the bill. She says the proposed law would create “a program for the illegal seizure of private property.”
“This bill outlines a process to effect a seizure of private property,” she wrote.
The state statute regarding relief from abuse orders does not explicitly say all persons must surrender firearms, but it gives judges discretion to include that as a provision.
Judge Amy Davenport, chief administrative judge for the Vermont courts, Monday said relief from abuse orders often specify that the person should not possess guns.
There is no way to know how many relief from abuse orders each year include a provision to surrender firearms, Davenport said.
In cases of a relief from abuse order, police cannot take a person’s firearms unless he or she surrenders them freely. They cannot, for example, search the home of someone who has been issued a relief from abuse order.
“The problem is (the law) doesn’t necessarily say you will turn your firearm over to the police,” said state police Major Glenn Hall.
When someone does surrender his or her firearms, however, Vermont State Police store them at barracks around the state. Record keeping is spotty and often guns are stored with evidence in the only secure space, Hall said.
“It’s not just about putting the gun in a room. Somebody’s got to follow up,” he said.
Keeping track of surrendered firearms is a duty often thrust on a barrack’s evidence officer, Hall said. Local police departments may have even fewer resources or facilities, he said.
Relief from abuse orders typically last for a year. Emergency orders are often ordered first, for 10 days, then a hearing is held when a final order can be issued.
Frequently people turn their guns over to a relative or friend, Hall said, because there is no storage facility.
The fee for storage would give sheriffs the job of handling storage and tracking, Hall said.
Hall could not estimate approximately how many firearms Vermont State Police hold in cases of restraining orders, but said it is likely more than 100 and “a constant flow.”