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Gunning for Reform: Burlington's Firearms Vote May Prove Largely Symbolic 

Published March 12, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

Residents of Vermont's biggest city spoke decisively on Town Meeting Day, voting to change local laws to impose stricter regulations on firearms than the state currently allows. Despite heated objections from some corners, the vote to change Burlington's charter passed by a margin of nearly two to one. But the elation of gun-control supporters has since given way to the realization that the Queen City's effort could face the same fate as an earlier one.

Fourteen years ago, Montpelier's push to regulate firearms quickly died in the Statehouse, where lawmakers must approve all changes to municipal charters. Three capital city legislators introduced a bill to codify the wishes of their constituents, but in the face of resistance from gun-rights advocates and wary lawmakers, the bill never even came to a vote.

Neither House Speaker Shap Smith nor Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell has said whether he would advance Vermont's latest attempt at municipal gun control — only that the debate would be lengthy and a vote is unlikely this year. Gov. Peter Shumlin has also been noncommittal about whether he would support the changes. Advocates on both sides acknowledge that Burlington's proposals would face fierce opposition from gun-rights advocates, about 500 of whom turned out at the Statehouse last Sunday to urge lawmakers to oppose the charter changes.

"[Montpelier voters] asked for the exemption, just like Burlington did. And they're still waiting," Vermont Gun Owners president Ed Cutler said in an interview. "Same thing. Different words, different ordinance, but same idea."

Burlington's initiative may also lose momentum in another, less obvious way. Gun-control advocates say they may shift their focus from pushing the Burlington charter vote in the Statehouse to building support for statewide initiatives — including mandatory background checks for gun buyers.

"Going town by town is pretty controversial," said Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont, the organization that backed Burlington's charter changes. Calling the Burlington vote "a piece," she said, "Ideally, everybody would be happier if we had a statewide solution. Our organization is focused on statewide efforts. We can stand up for gun-violence prevention, and the cities will have our back. Personally, I think it's better to have unified standards."

State Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) offered a similar view. "If we focus on background checks, it might be something we can put all the attention and momentum behind," she said. "There is a bigger conversation about gun safety and putting common-sense solutions forward that may or may not be in the shape of these charter changes."

But a long-term statewide strategy may not have been what Burlington residents had in mind when they voted 5,194 to 2,517 to ban firearms in businesses with liquor licenses; 5,579 to 2,066 to allow police to seize firearms after responding to domestic-abuse incidents; and 4,351 to 2,971 to require gun owners to store firearms safely.

"The largest city has spoken very loudly [saying], 'If the state is not going to do reasonable work, then we will,'" said State Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex Junction), a leading gun-control advocate. "It was very clear," said Waite-Simpson. "It's an issue the state is going to have to deal with."

The Burlington charter change passed even though its advocates were significantly outspent by the state's largest gun-rights group, according to the Secretary of State's office. In mandatory filings 10 days before Town Meeting Day, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, the state's National Rifle Association affiliate, reported spending more than $15,000 trying to defeat the initiative. Of the 10 contributions of more than $100 to the Federation's campaign, only one came from Burlington: Lenore Broughton, an heiress with a long history of funding conservative causes, contributed $1,000.

Part of the sportsmen's club cash paid for the yellow signs bearing slogans such as "All Roads Lead to Confiscation," which seemed to sprout on every Burlington street corner in the days before the vote.

Gun Sense Vermont, by contrast, spent $1,800 on its campaign. The group reported three contributions of more than $100. Two came from Burlington: Mary Sullivan, a former state representative, gave $150; and photographer Carolyn Bates gave $365. (Both groups are required to submit a new report by the end of the week detailing subsequent spending.)

Despite their investment, guns-rights groups say they expected defeat, and planned all along to focus their energies on convincing state lawmakers to reject Burlington's decision.

"We didn't expect such a high percentage, but we were expecting to lose," said Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont. "We just figured it would die in the Statehouse and it would be done with. We're pretty strong. Regardless of what Burlington does, the rest of the legislature still has to answer to their constituents. Most voters are pro-gun."

(That assertion is likely to be the focus of debate. A February 2013 poll by Castleton State College found that 61 percent of Vermonters supported banning the sale of assault weapons, and 85 percent favored tightening background checks for gun buyers.)

If the charter changes do make it onto the legislative agenda, the back and forth won't be exclusively about guns. There's also a question of whether a city's voters can carve out an exemption to state law.

The Burlington charter changes would supersede a Vermont law that gun groups call the Sportsmen's Bill of Rights. That moniker may a bit misleading — it's a one-paragraph law enacted in 1988 that says communities cannot adopt local rules that "directly regulate hunting, fishing and trapping or the possession, ownership, transportation, transfer, sale, purchase, carrying, licensing or registration of traps, firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or ammunition."

Despite its brevity, that paragraph has long been the weapon that gun-rights groups have relied upon to prevent individual towns from regulating firearms. Campbell said a debate about whether towns can be exempt from a state law could potentially consume an entire legislative session.

"If we were to authorize this charter change, we would have to draft it in such a way that it would be an exception to current statute ... it could lead to unintended consequences," Campbell said. "There's just no time to really dig into the issue [this session], because if you do, you have to look at the constitutional issues." 

Waite-Simpson said the gun-rights advocates have overstated the importance of the law, which she dismissed as "four lines in the municipal codes stuck between junkyards and solid-waste districts."

"It doesn't give you a right to carry a gun everywhere. It doesn't say there can't be reasonable restrictions. There's a lot of room to work without trampling on the rights of law-abiding people," Waite-Simpson said. "One way or the other, the state owes the city of Burlington a response — and a reasonable response."

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said in an interview that it was too "early in the discussion" to know whether Burlington's initiatives would give rise to a more comprehensive statewide gun-control strategy. In the meantime, he said he would lobby to make the charter changes law.

"I think the charter changes deal with important public-safety issues in Burlington and would improve public safety in Burlington, and the people of Burlington strongly support them," Weinberger said.

Of course, not all Queen City residents agree.

Scott Chapman, a maintenance manager and competitive shooter, said the charter changes would prevent people from defending themselves. For example, he said, the ordinance requiring safe storage would make it impossible for a homeowner to quickly access a firearm in the event of a robbery.

"That's essentially disarming the populace of Burlington in their home," Chapman said. "That essentially takes away the deterrent for robberies and home invasions. I don't want to see anybody harmed, but you're taking somebody's choice to protect themselves and their loved ones away from them and, in my view, that's just wrong."

State Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) said he is inclined to focus on endorsing Burlington's charter changes instead of hoping they'll spark a statewide campaign. The reason, he said, is simple: Lawmakers have traditionally resisted statewide measures. Last year, in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, Baruth filed a bill banning the manufacture and sale of high-capacity magazines and semiautomatic weapons. He withdrew it a week later because none of his colleagues had his back. It got negligible support.

Baruth said that lawmakers would have a tougher time ignoring Burlington voters' wishes than they did his initiative.

"I think the charter change will provoke a conversation," he said. "The difference will come in how people in the building will treat it. If it's a bill in the Senate and one senator will be put off, it's one thing. But Burlington is the largest city in the state, and it was a democratic process; people will be reluctant to deep-six the process of the debate."

State Rep. Joanna Cole (D-Burlington) said she stands prepared to back the charter changes but has already warned her constituents that Burlington's will might not matter to state lawmakers.

"I'm only one vote," she said, "and democracy is messy.'"

Seven Days Staff Writer Alicia Freese contributed to this report.
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Mark Davis

Mark Davis

Mark Davis was a Seven Days staff writer 2013-2018.

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