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Watts: Rethinking Gun Laws

The 2018 legislative session will be known as the year that Vermont took an important step towards reducing gun violence.

Following the Parkland shootings, there was yet another national conversation about gun control. But so far only two states - Vermont and Florida - have passed significant legislation.

That Vermont has led where most states have done nothing is remarkable for many reasons.

We’ve always been known as a gun rights state, a state with a long tradition of hunting and gun ownership - and a state where most political leaders from Bernie Sanders to Phil Scott had repeatedly rejected significant gun control measures.

But in 2018 this changed. And at the center of the change was an act of courage by our Republican Governor Phil Scott. Leadership should be about being open to new information. And Phil Scott, a lifelong hunter, and gun owner showed great courage in re-thinking his support for gun control.

The governor says he’d always considered Vermont immune to the school shootings and daily carnage of gun violence. But he changed his mind after reading the police affidavit from the former student who had planned to wreak havoc on Fair Haven Union High School, in Rutland County. The former student had recently purchased a gun and developed a plan of attack. This clearly could happen here and almost did, Scott said.

And despite heated opposition from many members of his own party and other gun rights advocates, Scott supported the reasonable gun control laws that emerged from this legislative session.

New state policies raise the legal age to purchase from 18 to 21, require mandatory background checks for private gun sales, require buyers and sellers to meet in person with a licensed dealer before finishing the sale and ban the possession and sale of large capacity magazines and so-called bump-stocks.

Scott signed the new law in a public ceremony on the statehouse steps – where he stood for 45 minutes to boos and hisses. That took courage.

This vote will be long remembered, once again demonstrating Vermont can be a national leader.

Think back to the 2002 vote to approve civil unions. That year, after another harsh debate, the Vermont legislature approved civil unions. About 12 years later, the US Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.

Let’s hope that sensible firearm regulation won’t take so long.

Correction 5/30/2018 11:15 a.m. This text has been updated to more accurately identify the school in question as Fair Haven Union High School, in Rutland County.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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