Ahead of the 2023 legislative session, cities and towns across Vermont have either adopted or are considering resolutions requesting the power to regulate guns. GunSense Vermont, an influential gun control lobbying group, is spearheading the effort.
On Oct. 11, Woodstock’s village trustees adopted a resolution calling for the repeal of a state law, commonly known as the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights, that prevents municipalities from restricting guns.
The Burlington City Council expects to take up a similar resolution soon, and GunSense Vermont is pursuing measures in Montpelier and Winooski.
“We’d like to start in a few communities to sort of build a critical mass to get some support going at the Statehouse,” GunSense Vermont Executive Director Conor Casey said.
In Burlington, council President Karen Paul, D-Ward 6, said the city’s Board of Health is putting forward the resolution. The council plans to vote on a motion to send it to the public safety committee for review, Paul said.
The Burlington resolution echoes the Woodstock one and also calls for “meaningful steps to prevent gun violence,” which could include the creation of a gun violence prevention office, partnering with schools to promote gun violence prevention and providing guidance for the safe storage of guns.
In 2014, Burlington voters passed three gun control-related charter changes, which required legislative approval. They have since languished in the Statehouse, with some lawmakers suggesting they would violate the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights. The changes would ban guns from Burlington establishments with a liquor license, allow police to seize guns after incidents of domestic abuse and require all guns to be locked.
In Woodstock, village trustees, who passed the resolution unanimously, said they worked with GunSense to craft the language.
“The Village of Woodstock believes in the right and propriety of the municipalities to enact reasonable regulations involving firearms designed to ensure the safety of in a reasonable manner given local concerns and issues,” the resolution said.
Bob Williamson, a Woodstock resident and GunSense board member, noted that Woodstock recently suffered the ramifications of gun violence. In June, a murder-suicide shut down the village for hours.
“It’s something that certainly brought it home for Woodstock,” said Seton McIlroy, chair of the trustees. McIlroy also works with Moms Demand Action, a national advocacy group working against gun violence.
McIlroy said she thinks that towns should be able to have a say in gun laws.
“Gun violence prevention laws are not necessarily one size fits all,” she said.
What may be appropriate for a more rural setting such as Woodstock may not work in Burlington, McIlroy said.
Casey said GunSense has been working with other municipalities around the state in hopes that they can “take the lead” in gun violence prevention. Casey, who is a city councilor in Montpelier, said he would recuse himself from any future council vote on a resolution. He is also running for the House as a Democrat.
All municipal authority in Vermont is granted through state law, according to Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Charter changes allow towns and cities to customize state law for individual communities but they still require legislative approval.
That principle is commonly known as Dillon’s Rule, Brady said, and many other states are governed in the same way.
Noting that local control is part of the character of Vermont, Brady said, “There should be a principle that the best decisions are often made closest to the people, which is in local government.”
At the state level, however, even some of the strongest gun-control advocates expressed reservations about granting municipalities authority to regulate firearms.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, acknowledged that while people are “crying out for change” on gun violence, he would prefer that the federal government take action. If that doesn’t happen, then the state should take up the issue, he said.
“If there’s paralysis on both those levels, then people want to be able to feel safe through their municipal laws,” Baruth said.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott “isn’t planning to propose any changes to municipal governance on firearms,” according to spokesperson Jason Maulucci. “He does believe that consistency from municipality to municipality is important on issues like this.”
Those who advocate for gun rights warned about the ramifications of allowing local control of guns.
“For over 34 years this statute has served Vermont and served it well, as there is a single, uniform, universal understanding across all of Vermont as to what the firearm laws are,” said Chris Bradley of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
Bradley said repeal of the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights would allow Vermont to become a “patchwork” of local laws, creating a “nightmare” for law enforcement and residents.
Even Casey acknowledged that any gun measure in the state is likely to face resistance.
“It’s definitely been the third rail in Vermont politics,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Bob Williamson