Senate to consider banning semi-automatic weapons in some public spaces

Jeanette White
Sen. Phil Baruth, front left, and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee discuss hate crime legislation in the Statehouse in March 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

One of the staunchest gun-control advocates in the Vermont Legislature will propose restricting the state’s open and concealed carry laws in 2020. 

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, said Tuesday he will be introducing legislation that would prevent people from carrying semi-automatic weapons in areas including parks, stores, restaurants, airports, places of worship, auditoriums, theaters and childcare facilities. It would also ban people from carrying semi-automatic firearms during political demonstrations. 

Vermont has some of the least restrictive carry laws in the country. The only places the state currently prohibits people from bringing firearms are on school grounds and in state buildings. Unlike some states, Vermont does not require a permit to carry a firearm  — concealed or open. 

“Everybody’s sort of conditioned to accept the fact that in public, people are going to carry weapons that are designed to kill large numbers of human beings,” Baruth said.

The partial ban on where Vermonters can bring guns would not apply to handguns and rifles that are not semi-automatic. And under the legislation, the restrictions would not be in effect in all public places — downtowns, and public streets would not be included, for example. 

“I don’t think we’ve reached a consensus on banning assault weapons,” Baruth said. “But I do think we’ve reached a consensus that we don’t want them in the public square.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was too early to say whether he would support the bill.  But he said he’s “certainly more than happy to discuss” the legislation and sees some logic in it. 

“It’s hard to argue why you need to carry an assault weapon at a football game,” he said.  

Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, who has not yet reviewed the proposal, signaled openness to it Wednesday. 

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“I think generally speaking, people would acknowledge that the places you just described are not ones that probably are appropriate for people to bring assault weapons to,” he said.  

The proposal will come months after Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have established a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, a watered down version of a bill Baruth proposed for 48-hour waiting periods on all firearms.  

Sen. Phil Baruth, center, and Sen. Joe Benning listen to testimony on proposed gun safety regulations during a committee meeting in Randolph in March 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

However, gun activists argue limiting where people can bring firearms also restricts their ability to protect themselves. 

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, an ardent gun rights supporter, called Baruth’s proposal “a non-starter.”

“They want to stop people from being able to carry guns for self protection and I can’t vote for that,” Rodgers said.   

“Taking rights away from law abiding citizens is not going to help,” he added. “Criminals are going to carry them because they don’t care about the law.”  

Bill Moore, an advocate with Vermont Traditions Coalition, a pro-gun rights group, said the proposal “is designed to create criminals out of law abiding, constitutionally-entitled people who carry firearms for protection outside the home.” 

In 2020, Baruth will also be reviving legislation to establish a 48-hour waiting period for all firearms purchases, a measure which gun control activists and Democrats say help prevent suicides. He proposed the same bill in 2019, which after negotiations, became a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases. 

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott during a press briefing in November. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Scott vetoed the measure in June, arguing that the state had gone far enough when it enacted a series slate of new gun measures in 2018. Scott broke with his party and his prior stance on gun control to support firearms restrictions, which expanded background checks to private sales, raised the age to purchase a firearm to 21, banned bump stocks and limited magazine size for handguns and rifles.

The bill the governor struck down earlier this year also included other gun safety measures that Scott has signaled he could support. One of the provisions in the bill would address what is known as the “Charleston loophole.”

That loophole allows those seeking to buy firearms to receive certain weapons before their background checks are completed. The loophole was what allowed the gunman in the deadly 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to obtain a firearm before he ultimately failed a background check. 

Sears said he would rather work to pass the other measures that were struck down in the bill, including working to close the loophole, than bring back the waiting period provision. 

“I was sorry the governor vetoed it,” Sears said of the waiting period bill. “But again, if your goal is to get another veto then go ahead. But I would rather work on the governor’s office on doing what’s possible and doing something positive for the state of Vermont.”   

The governor’s spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, said in an email it’s too early for the governor to comment on Baruth’s gun proposals. 

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But, she added, “I’d reiterate that the Governor has also said he believes we need to focus on ensuring the sweeping gun safety reforms we passed last year are working well and as intended, and on addressing the root causes of violence and suicide.”

Clarification: A previous headline on this story described the proposed ban as applying to “assault-style” weapons. The ban would also apply to semi-automatic handguns.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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