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Vermont's Gun-Control Dodge Leaves Burlington in the Crosshairs 

Local Matters

click to enlarge Still from Mayors Against Illegal Guns video
  • Still from Mayors Against Illegal Guns video

Second Amendment activists have shot down gun-control legislation in Montpelier and are drawing a bead on Sen. Patrick Leahy’s anti-weapons-trafficking proposal and other measures in Washington. But Gun Owners of Vermont, the state affiliate of a group described by the New York Times as more militant than the National Rifle Association, hasn’t yet managed to kill Burlington’s bid to ban assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips.

“Burlington is saying ‘our state government isn’t doing anything, our federal government isn’t doing anything, so we’re going to do something,’” comments State Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex), Vermont’s foremost gun-control advocate. “Burlington’s trying to take control of its borders.”

Waite-Simpson was lead sponsor of the primary gun-control bill introduced in the Vermont legislature following the mass murder of 20 first graders and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. Lamenting that she thought “it would be different this time,” Waite-Simpson says her multifaceted legislation was defeated as a result of what she calls “the libertarian bent that remains strong in this state.” Strenuous opposition from Gun Owners of Vermont and other Second-Amendment stalwarts also contributed to the bill’s demise, she adds.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger expressed support for Waite-Simpson’s bill and backed the city council’s 10-3 vote in January to advance a municipal assault-weapons ban. He has also joined a national campaign by Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, for strengthened federal gun controls and background checks.

Weinberger popped up in a public-service announcement the group released last month that featured two dozen mayors calling for Congress to act on gun control. In his two-second cameo, Weinberger demands, “No more neighborhoods in mourning.”

But the mayor has lately been silent on the subject of gun control in Burlington, omitting mention of the proposed assault-weapon ban from a State of the City address last week that touted numerous other initiatives of his administration.

In an interview last Sunday, Weinberger said his lowered local profile on gun issues shouldn’t be interpreted as a cut-and-run maneuver. “It made sense to wait and see” whether the state or federal governments would institute gun controls, the mayor explained, adding, “Most everyone agrees it would be more effective to act on those levels.”

But now that moves to regulate guns have been blocked in Montpelier and are meeting ferocious resistance in Washington, “I will be more engaged, going forward,” Weinberger promises.

He said he plans to speak soon before the city council’s charter change committee, which has begun work on the local gun-control proposal. City Councilor Rachel Siegel, the Old North End Progressive who chairs that committee, notes it has met three times since January to discuss a measure that may violate the Vermont Constitution’s enshrinement of gun-ownership rights. Siegel suggests her committee and the council as a whole could decide “it’s a waste of our time” to pursue a Burlington assault-weapons ban, if it appears likely to be rejected at the state level.

For now, though, Siegel is proceeding with the proposed charter change and a related gun-control referendum that Burlington voters would consider in March 2014. “There’s plenty of time to do this right,” the Ward 3 Prog councilor notes.

If the council passes the charter change, and if voters approve it next March, state lawmakers would have to decide whether to bless such a home-rule dispensation for Burlington.

State Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of the House committee that would take up a gun-related charter change, suggests such an initiative would face rigorous review in Montpelier. The Windsor Democrat predicts many of her colleagues would have “concerns” about a Burlington ban’s potential violation of the Vermont constitution’s guarantee of gun-ownership rights.

The city council’s January resolution also called for hearings to be conducted by the council’s public safety committee, which has not met for more than a year. Newly reelected council president Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) has promised that the committee will return to action. Its agenda could include a presentation by Police Chief Michael Schirling on gun-control issues.

Last month, Schirling told Siegel’s panel that he favors banning knives as well as guns from Burlington bars. The chief also asked the council to consider empowering police to disarm a person cited — but not arrested — for domestic violence. Schirling further suggested enabling officers to take an unconcealed gun from a suspicious individual who indicated he was heading for, say, a school or the mall in the Church Street Marketplace. It’s not illegal in Vermont for someone to carry a firearm in public places except on the grounds of state institutions, including schools.

The Queen City’s top cop has not taken a stand on the council’s move to ban assault rifles, but he warned in an interview on Monday that such a Burlington-only prohibition would be “difficult to enforce.”

A spokesman for Gun Owners of Vermont is meanwhile vowing to fight any move to restrict access to lawful firearms in the Queen City. “If there’s a chance to come back to Burlington and oppose it, we’ll be there,” says Ed Cutler, the group’s lobbyist. He was one of scores of gun-rights advocates, many in blaze orange hunting duds, who attended the council’s January hearing on the weapons ban.

“If they pass any of that,” Cutler adds, “we’ll have them in court so fast their heads will spin.”

Councilor Norm Blais (D-Ward 6), sponsor of the gun-control ordinance, predicts the gun group’s campaign against the measure won’t succeed. Blais says he’s “completely confident” the council will support the requisite charter change and that voters will back it.

Blais is more cautious in his response to a question about the inaction on gun control by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Democrat-controlled legislature. It’s “unfortunate” Waite-Simpson’s bill didn’t pass, Blais says.

Weinberger takes a similarly temperate approach in assessing the performance of his fellow Vermont Dems on gun control. The mayor refrains from criticizing the governor, but he does say, “If one of these horrible tragedies happened here, it’s very clear we would be having a very different conversation” on gun issues.

Waite-Simpson is less reluctant to bash Shumlin for refusing to support any state gun controls. “I completely disagree with him on this,” she says. “He’s shown good leadership on marriage equality, health care, medical marijuana and shutting down the nuclear plant, so why not on guns?”

Burlington City Councilor Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) goes further than Waite-Simpson, saying he’s “disgusted” by Vermont Democrats’ refusal to adopt gun-control measures as strong as those recently enacted by their colleagues “across the lake” in New York. Brennan points out that one national arms dealer’s website warns that certain guns advertised for sale are unavailable to potential buyers in New York, Massachusetts and a few other states with comparatively strict controls. “Certainly we should be one of those states…” Brennan

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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