At the Vermont Democratic Party’s state convention in late May, the only call for gun control regulations came from gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter.
“You can be darn sure I’m going to be a leader who fights for women’s economic security, who fights to end the epidemic of domestic violence, who stands up to the [National Rifle Association] and fights for gun safety,” Minter said in a speech to Democratic Party members.
Vermont has a strong hunting tradition and has among the least restrictive gun control laws in the nation. Politicians, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and many members of the Legislature, have shunned proposals that would have banned military assault rifles and ammunition for assault rifles. Pols have also been loath to require background checks for people who have a history of mental illness. In Vermont, and throughout the United States, people on terrorist watch lists are allowed to buy guns.
But the question of banning assault rifles was once again thrust into the political arena following the deadliest shooting in American history — a rampage on Sunday that killed 49 and wounded 54 at a gay bar in Orlando. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen, used an AR-15, a military assault rifle used in the Vietnam war, to massacre LGBTQ dancers.
Minter said Monday that she was devastated by the slayings on Sunday, adding that while there has not been a mass shooting in Vermont, domestic violence involving guns has led to the deaths of many Vermont women. She pointed to 2013 data from the Violence Policy Center that ranked Vermont eighth in the nation for spousal homicide.
“All I know is years of silence makes for more deaths,” said Minter, who is advocating for comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. “People say we don’t have a problem in Vermont, but I know that we do.”
Before Sunday’s shooting, Minter was the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate who had introduced a comprehensive gun control proposal. The VDP’s official platform, drafted in 2014, also did not mention new gun control policies.
On Monday, the Vermont Democratic Party pledged to call for background checks as part of a revision to the party platform in August.
“A glaring omission from our platform was any reference on guns,” said Conor Casey, the party’s executive director. “If we lose seats for being committed to our values, so be it. But I don’t think it’s an issue we can stay silent on any more.”
Casey also promised to shape a comprehensive strategy for meaningful gun reforms as part of priorities for the next legislative session.
On Monday, the two other Democratic gubernatorial candidates somewhat apologetically, also strengthened their gun control stances.
Peter Galbraith, a former state senator from Windham County, planned at a press conference on Monday to introduce a proposal for free college tuition at Vermont State Colleges, but instead scrapped his original talking points and called for tough gun restrictions.
Galbraith called for a ban on assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, as well as limits on the size of ammunition magazines. Background checks should be required for all gun purchases, Galbraith said, and he assailed the National Rifle Association as a far-too-powerful organization that “masquerades as an organization of gun-owners, when in reality it is the agent of gun manufacturers.”
The NRA has intimidated lawmakers in the Vermont Legislature and specifically targeted Linda Waite-Simpson, a Democrat from Essex, who proposed firearm restrictions on behalf of a constituent whose son killed himself with a gun.
Galbraith said Democrats have for too long stayed silent about gun control in Vermont.
“Political leaders – and I’ll confess, myself included—have ducked this conversation,” Galbraith said.
“I didn’t take on this issue, and I wish I had,” Galbraith added. “But I’m taking it on now.”
Dunne, like his opponents, called for universal background checks and stressed that people on terrorist watch lists, as well as known domestic abusers and people suffering with certain mental illnesses should also be barred from owning weapons.
“We in Vermont have a proud history of responsible gun ownership,” Dunne said. “While it’s tempting to think of our state as separate from the atrocities we’ve witnessed in Orlando, San Bernadino and Charleston, we have a responsibility to remember the fact that we are more connected than ever before, and to ensure our state laws preserve our way of life while protecting our neighbors, both in Vermont and in other states.”
The Republican gubernatorial candidates — Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman — offered condolences for the victims of the Orlando shooting while reiterating their positions that the state’s gun laws do not need to be changed. The Vermont Republican Party’s official platform does not address gun regulations.
“I believe Vermont’s gun laws are good and do not need to be changed,” Lisman said in a statement. “Vermont has among the lowest violent crimes rate per capita involving gun use among any state.”
Lisman also called for an investigation into how Mateen, the Orlando shooter, was able to remain at large even after being flagged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Scott echoed Lisman, saying the state’s current gun laws “strike an important balance between our rights as American citizens and public safety, and I would not support any further restrictions.”
While Vermont Democrats have pledged to fight harder next session for gun control measures, past efforts have resulted in gridlock. Last session, for example, the Legislature rejected a Burlington ordinance that would have allowed police to confiscate firearms, ammunition and other weapons from people suspected of domestic violence; required that firearms be kept locked and stored in homes; and banned firearms from establishments serving alcohol.
Ed Cutler, president and legislative director of Gun Owners of Vermont, said a key reason the Orlando shooting was so deadly is because Florida bans weapons in bars.
“He just started killing people and there was nobody in that building that could have defended those people because it was a gun-free zone,” Cutler said. “If there was one person or more to defend those people, it would have drastically reduced the number of casualties.”