Will Vermont politicians pay a price for gun restrictions?

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MONTPELIER — In the midst of legislative action on gun violence, lawmakers returned to their home districts for Town Meeting Day in early March and took the temperature of their constituents. On both sides of the debate, it was feverish.

In a state where gun rights have been sacrosanct, where the governor talks casually about his own gun collection when discussing the nuances of firearm regulation, gun control advocates were in uncharted territory — they had momentum and a strong shot to pass new laws.

After a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a frighteningly close call in Fair Haven, Vt., and the rise of a student movement that spanned the country, lawmakers whose previous efforts to pass gun control bills had only proved futile, decided to see just how far they could push. With the centerpiece of gun legislation, S.55, having prevailed in the Senate by a narrow vote of 17 to 13, gun control advocates say they may have gone as far as they can go in the Statehouse, for now.

The question now is whether politicians have outpaced the electorate in their response to the threat of gun violence. In progressive districts, legislators may find they'll be rewarded for their efforts. Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, said he decided to focus on gun legislation at the urging of constituents who turned out for Town Meeting Day. As soon as he returned to Montpelier, he set to work on a broad amendment to the central piece of gun legislation, S.55.

"I heard from a lot of different individuals, a lot of people really pressing for some gun measures," he said. "I thought, well, we should put a reasonable range of policies on the table to consider when we are looking at this."

Those proposed policies included safe storage requirements, a mandatory 10-day waiting period for gun purchases, and bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stock devices made notorious by a mass shooting in Las Vegas last year.

Only the ban on magazines and bump stocks made it to a vote on the House floor, but that was plenty to enrage gun rights advocates, who protested by handing out free rifle magazines after the bill was passed by the Senate.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, joined the gun rights rally on the Statehouse lawn last Saturday. The career defense attorney said his colleagues had failed to fully contemplate the bill they were passing, due to the passions and emotion swirling in the Statehouse.

"When we get so wrapped up in a passionate moment that we can't go through that process, bad legislation gets passed, and I truly believe that this is a bad piece of legislation," Benning said.

Benning said S.55, particularly the ban on magazines, eroded the constitutional right for Vermonters to arm themselves for self-defense.

He described S.55 as "shotgun legislation," for lack of a better word. "I don't want to use this term because it's too close to the issue, but a shotgun when fired spreads pellets in a very wide direction," he said. "You thrown a bunch of things at the wall and hope it sticks."

That's not the way LaLonde sees it. "It wasn't like put a bunch of policies out there and see which ones stick, it's like, here are policies going at the issue that the governor and constituents want us to address, and this is a good range to look at."

The majority of the House and Senate agreed with LaLonde, thanks in large part to a foundation laid by Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who first proposed a universal background in 2015. That language would become the core of S.55, which was later amended to include the other gun provisions.

"Parkland and Fair Haven gave him the public reaction that enabled him to expand the argument to a wider group of people, and he has skillfully played that," Benning said of Baruth. "And that's not to disparage him, that's just to say he has wisely picked up on his belief that this should be the rule of the land and used the moment in time with the emotional momentum that comes with it."

Baruth said the back-to-back occurrences radically changed the conversation on gun control — and transformed conventional wisdom in Vermont politics.

"Traditionally in Vermont politics, gun control was a third rail and taking a position on gun safety meant you didn't advance off the ladder and often you were kicked off the ladder," he said. "I think there were also people who really didn't think it was a problem, and weren't going to put their necks out until they did."

That suddenly changed in February, when 18-year-old Jack Sawyer was arrested for an alleged plot to shoot up his former high school, the day after 17 people were shot dead in Florida.

"For whatever reason, for the grace of God, that kid was stopped and everyone had a look at his entire operation, so the idea that this isn't a problem in Vermont is no longer a viable stance," Baruth said.

"You have the guy here and the national movement catch fire, so the two things ignite at the same time," he added. "The Rutland case would have changed minds, but not as many, it was really that weird horrible serendipity of the two things happening at once."

Baruth is part of what gun control advocates have called the "Chittenden cabal" — Democratic assembly members from the state's most urban county who have led the charge for greater gun control — but the senator gave credit to Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who made a complete U-turn on the issue following the Fair Haven arrest.

"When you have the head of the party normally associated with the opposition to these bills, when you have him stake out a position 50 yards down the field, I think all of his people looked at themselves and said where are we now with regard to our party and our leadership?" Baruth said.

Scott's support for two gun seizure bills — H.422, focusing on domestic violence and S.221, on suicide and "extreme risk" situations — no doubt contributed to unanimous support in the Senate and overwhelming support in the House. But the governor took a cautious position on S.55 as it was moving through the Legislature, and few Republicans voted for the bill.

Jason Gibbs, the governor's chief of staff, said the addition of the ban on magazines changed the political dynamics of the bill. "It went from a bill that some of the most ardent gun rights advocates could reluctantly support to something that they viewed as going too far as a matter of principal," he said.

The effect of the passage of a landmark gun bill is likely to have greater effect on the politician who is signing the legislation into law — which Scott said he intends to do publicly this week — than on lawmakers, according to Eric Davis, a political analyst and retired Middlebury College political science professor.

"What is more interesting is its impact on Phil Scott," Davis said. "Will there be any independents who choose to run as an independent on this issue? Is there a third party candidate who can pull some votes from Scott in November?"

And if so, the big question is: Will that person pull enough votes from Scott to tip the election in favor of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate? Has the governor made a political calculation based on demographic shifts in the electorate?

"Scott, obviously, will have plenty of opportunities to reclaim his credibility, shall we say, with some of these voters, because I expect he'll veto a few bills toward the end of the legislative session, tax bills, fee bills, and so forth," Davis said.

Gibbs said he expected the governor's action on gun control to cut both ways politically.

"There will be some number of single issue voters who are so disappointed in this action that they will not vote for Phil Scott again," he said. "I believe that an overwhelming majority of Vermonters, including a large number of independent and Democrats who may not have voted for him in the past, support the action that he is taking."

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, compared the gun issue to the divisive votes on same-sex marriage in 2000. Sears suggested that House members are most vulnerable to political blowback.

"It will be more likely that some people who voted for the bill that live in more rural districts will take a hit," Sears said. "Only one senator lost their position after civil unions, and it didn't seem to have an impact on the gubernatorial race, but had an impact on a lot of House races, for the Republicans."

Davis says it's unlikely that the gun issue will resonate quite as much with voters as civil unions did, because the split on gun restrictions, with few exceptions, was largely along party lines. Democrats supported S.55 as a rule, while Republicans opposed the bill. The exceptions featured mostly Democrats from regions of the state where the support for gun rights is the strongest.

For example, in the Senate, Democratic Sens. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans; Robert "Bobby" Starr, D-Essex/Orleans; and Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia; all voted against S.55, and all represent pro-gun rights parts of the state, Davis said.

Scott could lose votes from his political base, especially in the Republican primary, Sears said, but not enough to flip outcomes. "It's easy to say well he's going to be a one term governor — I've seen that all over Facebook — the problem is who's running against him?"

Keith Stern, a grocery store owner from Springfield and a Trump supporter, has already announced he will be challenging Scott in the August Republican primary for governor.

"This may help [Stern] a little bit," Davis said, adding, "I don't see any circumstance where Scott is vulnerable to being defeated in a Republican primary."

The electoral intrigue will begin in the general election. Davis said he doesn't expect Scott to win any more Democratic support with his support of S.55, but he does believe the governor is likely to gain more backing from "centrists" and "independents."

That may make it more difficult for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee for governor to stake a claim to those centrist and independent voters in the general election, Davis said.

Benning said the single-issue gun rights voting bloc is not big enough to do major political damage to Scott, especially when conservative voters are so enamored of his fiscal policies.

"I think that the general populace is not as committed to gun rights as the gun rights folks," he said, "and the general populace elected Phil Scott on the basis of holding down taxes, and he has accomplished that goal."

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