The nation grieved. Members of Congress introduced legislation to ban high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons. A president who had resisted gun control measures decided to act.
The year was 1989. The scene of the crime: a Cleveland Elementary School playground in Stockton, California, where five children were killed and another 30 injured.
Three months later, a Republican congressman from Vermont named Peter Smith signed on to the Semiautomatic Assault Weapons Act of 1989. Though he’d backed gun rights when he first ran for the House the year before, Smith had a change of heart after a discussion with a high school student from Washington, D.C.
“It was an important moment in my life,” Smith recalls. “All the sudden I concluded there were so many elements of the gun-control discussion that were upside down.”
So the National Rifle Association set its sights on the Republican congressman, spending a million dollars in the 1990 election to defeat Smith and others who backed the bill. It worked. Smith lost to a gun-rights supporter who subsequently voted against the Brady Handgun Bill, which mandated federal background checks for many gun purchasers.
That guy’s name? Bernie Sanders.
“There was absolutely no doubt in that ’90 vote that the NRA got [Sanders] elected and he owed them,” says Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of the Associated Press and now an executive at National Life Group.
Times have changed since 1990 — kind of.
Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who both opposed the Brady Bill, subsequently backed the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban and its unsuccessful reauthorization in 2004. They — and Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) — have had mixed records on guns since.
But the Smith episode is seared in the memory of every Vermont politician of that era. For while Vermont may be the most liberal state in the country, its gun politics remain those of a rural enclave ruled by sportsmen.
“Hunting is an integral part of who Vermonters are, so that’s why I think you see a lot of Vermont politicians seeking not to offend on this issue,” Graff says.
That may explain why, in the wake of last week’s horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many of the state’s most prominent politicians have been loathe to answer questions about whether new gun laws are necessary.
Spokesmen for Leahy, Sanders, Welch and Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is out of the country, turned down repeated requests for interviews Monday and Tuesday. They each declined to answer specific written questions from Seven Days — and from the Burlington Free Press — about their positions on gun laws and about potential legislative responses to the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Instead, they offered up only opaque statements that fail to say, well, anything.
President Barack Obama may have called for a national conversation about last week’s shooting — but for these four Vermont politicians, that conversation is being conducted via press release.
And that’s nothing new.
When Seven Days queried the congressional trio in January 2011 following the gunshot suicides of two Vermont teens, each declined to be interviewed, offering only statements arguing that gun laws are best left to the states. Asked by the Vermont Standard the following month about the Tucson shooting that left six dead and fellow House member Gabrielle Giffords injured, Welch said, “I’m going to see what legislation is proposed.”
But Welch’s only legislative action addressing semiautomatic weapons appears to have been a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder he and 64 other House Democrats signed two years before Tucson. Holder had suggested at a February 2009 press conference that the Obama administration might reinstate the expired assault-weapons ban.
“We believe that this ban was ineffective during the 10 years it was law, and would oppose its reenactment,” the Welch-signed letter reads. “The gun control community has intentionally misled many Americans into believing that [weapons included in the ban] are fully automatic machine guns. They are not. These firearms fire one shot for every pull of the trigger.”
The same can’t be said of Shumlin, who won “A” or “A-” ratings” from the NRA prior to each of his last three elections — not to mention a $2500 check from the group in October. Asked for a copy of the NRA questionnaire Shumlin filled out when seeking the group’s endorsement, campaign manager Alex MacLean claims she didn’t keep one.
The voting records of Sanders and Leahy appear to be more nuanced. In the ’90s, they both opposed the Brady Bill, but supported the assault weapons ban. (In a partisan reversal, former Republican senator Jim Jeffords voted for the Brady Bill.) And in recent years, they voted to allow gun owners to carry weapons on Amtrak trains and in national parks but opposed letting those with permits to carry concealed weapons in one state do so in another.
To be sure, the national dialogue around gun laws — not to mention mental-health services and violent entertainment — is only just beginning. And while a handful of gun-toting politicians outside Vermont have had “come to Jesus” moments in the days since Sandy Hook, it may take others more time to react and respond to such a traumatic event.
But no matter how long it takes, the question for Vermont politicians is this: Will they risk becoming the next Peter Smith or will they hunker down and hope like hell that this too shall pass, as it did with Stockton, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora?
And if they do fire back at the NRA, will voters punish or reward them?
Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) thinks the latter. He believes Vermont’s political climate has changed since Smith’s days.
“Typically, people have thought of gun control as the third rail of Vermont politics, and I think there was a time when that was true. But I think in this day and age, we’re past that,” he says. “We’re in grieving every four months for a mass shooting. I think it’s gotten to the point where the electricity has been turned off on that rail, but it’s a learned hopelessness.”
To that end, Baruth says he plans to introduce legislation in the Vermont Senate in January that could restrict semiautomatic rifles or high-capacity ammunition — or tackle the issue in another manner.
“I will stand by people’s right to use rifles to hunt, but I’m not going to say that’s the same thing as buying weapons that are designed for close-range combat to kill human beings,” he says.
Baruth wouldn’t be the first to try to bolster Vermont’s nearly nonexistent gun laws. When Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex) sought to hold gun owners criminally negligent if their unlocked weapons caused a child’s death, “It went absolutely nowhere other than to get me on the NRA website,” she recalls.
Waite-Simpson’s effort followed the 2009 suicide of a constituent’s 15-year-old son, Aaron Xue, who used an unsecured gun obtained at a friend’s house to kill himself.
“People felt threatened even by proposing to talk about that,” she says. “It was an incredibly uncomfortable time for me to have to spend hours every day with this email assault, when really I was just trying to make a point that we can do better when it comes to protecting our kids.”
As it stands, Vermont has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. The state earned an “F” from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and six out of 100 points from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Vermont sets no limits on the number of firearms that can be purchased at one time, nor does it impose a waiting period on gun purchases. Heck, even 16-year-olds can buy and carry concealed handguns in Vermont without their parents’ permission.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville), who himself earned a 92 percent rating from the NRA this year, says that while he’s “open to talking with people about a reexamination” of the state’s gun laws, he’s cognizant of the challenges involved.
“As someone who has tried to build consensus around basically baby steps, I can tell you it is going to be difficult,” he says. “People feel very strongly on both sides of the issue.”
As for Baruth’s political analysis, Smith says the Chittenden County senator misses a pretty sharp cultural — and geographical — divide.
“Philip lives in Burlington. I live in Morrisville, and I think there’s a big difference of opinion depending on where you live,” Smith argues.
Smith’s Senate counterpart, President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) agrees. A former Florida police officer and a gun owner himself, Campbell says the first bill he introduced in the Senate — to ban armor-piercing bullets — brought him nothing but grief from Vermont’s gun lobby.
“I’ll never forget someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Hope you have a happy two years,’” Campbell recalls.
In the days since Sandy Hook, Campbell says he’s been frustrated “with people across the country trying to politicize this tragedy.”
“Emotions are running high,” he says. “I don’t like knee-jerk reactions to issues where once a tragedy happens you say, ‘I know this was the cause, so we’re going to create a law to prevent it.’”
That said, following a period of reflection, Campbell thinks Vermont’s gun laws may be ready for reexamination.
“I do not see the reason for people to have assault rifles. It doesn’t matter. I’ll get an ‘F.’ I don’t care,” he says, referring to the NRA’s ratings. “And the high-capacity magazines? Unless it’s law enforcement, then I don’t see the reason you have to have that.”
For Speaker Smith, last week’s tragedy hit close to home. He spent his first five years in Newtown, where his father attended school. He has family friends whose children survived the shooting.
His voice cracking, Smith says, “I don’t think you could see pictures of those kids and not wonder what the hell we are doing.”
Twenty-three years after his own tough vote in favor of a federal ban on assault weapons, Peter Smith — Sanders’ vanquished foe — says he wouldn’t have voted any differently.
“I was always proud that I stood for something and I did not regret for a minute the positions I took,” says Smith, who now lives in Santa Fe and works for Kaplan Higher Education.
“I think this is an issue whose time has come. I know I will be supporting reasonable and thoughtful restraints, and I urge Vermont’s congressional delegation to do the same,” he says. “My suspicion is they will. And my hope is they will.”
Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.
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