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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Showdown Over Gun Reforms Coming To Montpelier In 2015

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld
A poll commissioned by the advocacy group Gun Sense Vermont has found that a majority of Vermonters support background checks.

Advocates of gun control have historically gotten a cool reception in Montpelier, where elected officials often don’t like to talk about the issue, let alone pass legislation. But one group says the political tide is turning. And a push for firearms reform is set to hit the Statehouse in 2015.

Kristin Goss, an associate professor of public policy at the Sanford School at Duke University, has been studying the politics of gun control for more than a decade. In a book published seven years after the school shootings in Columbine, Goss detailed the inability of reform advocates to win political traction for their cause.

But she says the movement is evolving quickly, and becoming more sophisticated politically. And she says its Achilles Heel – poor organization and failure to mobilize – are being solved thanks to an infusion of money and the arrival of new communication tools.

“I believe that new tools like social media, which allow people to find one another and create a sense of solidarity and momentum and coordinate their activities, is going to end up really making a difference in kind of leveling the organizational playing field between the gun reform side and the gun rights side,” Goss says.

Exhibit A for Goss’ thesis may be taking shape here in Vermont, where a year-old group, called Gun Sense Vermont, has launched what will likely be the most well-organized, well-funded push yet for gun reform in this state.

It’s the same group that was behind the passage of three gun-related charter changes in Burlington on Town Meeting Day. And the group’s president, a Brattleboro mother named Ann Braden, says Gun Sense will bring the same organizational prowess to passing legislation that gun-rights groups will bring to defeating it. The group is abandoning its push for the charter changes – they would require legislative approval – in favor of pursuing a statewide solution.

“So many people support what we’re doing, but they just haven’t had a way to tap in and figure out how they personally can make a difference with this,” Braden says. “And what we’re doing is really introducing those people to other people who feel the same way.”

Gun Sense will have a single-issue agenda in 2015: universal background checks. Braden says the lack of check protocols at gun shows and on the Internet has created a loophole which allows criminals to gain easy access to firearms.

“It’s not about legislating what kinds of guns people can have. It’s not about legislating responsible gun owners. It’s about making sure criminals, domestic abusers, those who are deemed dangerously and tragically mentally ill, that they can’t get weapons,” Braden says.

Eddie Garcia is among the gun rights advocates who organized the rallies that helped quash proposed firearms legislation in 2013. Garcia, a St. Johnsbury resident, says lawmakers shouldn’t underestimate the widespread bipartisan opposition in Vermont to proposals like the one being pushed by Gun Sense. Garcia says he and others will work diligently to defeat it.

“So you will see me in the halls of the Statehouse. You will see me organizing with Vermonters for the Second Amendment, and my own group, Vermont Citizens Defense League, and we’re going to show these people for what they are,” Garcia says.

While Gun Sense has vowed to push for only universal background checks in 2015, its website lists support for a number of other measures, including “safe storage,” and tougher gun trafficking laws. At a Statehouse “kickoff” event for its legislative campaign Tuesday, Braden wouldn’t say whether Gun Sense will pursue legislation on those fronts in 2016 or beyond. And Garcia says it’s clear that Gun Sense’s foray into universal background checks is only the beginning of a campaign that will ultimately seek broader restrictions on the rights of responsible gun owners.

“The unassailable facts are Vermont has the third-lowest rate of crimes involving guns in the United States,” Garcia says. “There’s no need for new laws.”

Gun Sense on Tuesday unveiled the results of a poll it commissioned that shows majority support for universal background checks among likely Vermont voters. Braden says the poll also shows that residents are more likely to vote for candidates who share those views.

In the past, gun-rights groups have won the day here and elsewhere based at least in part on their ability to swing elections for or against candidates who support or oppose their views. But Braden says Gun Sense will also aim to exert similar electoral influence.

And its ability to do so hinges in part on its financial resources, which are sufficient now to support three paid workers, including Braden. She says none are earning salaries, or compensation commensurate with the number of hours they’re putting in. Braden would not disclose where her group’s funding is coming from, or how much has come in.

The $50 million that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has poured into his national gun-reform organization, according to Goss, could help finance state-level campaigns like the one underway in Vermont.  

“They’ve got a pretty invigorated grassroots base largely made up of mothers, and mothers who have never been involved in this before,” Goss says of the resurgent movement nationally.

Goss, whose forthcoming book with co-author Philip Cook is titled The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know,says the gun-rights movement, led by the National Rifle Association, has done an effective job over the past 15 years winning the public debate. The NRA’s success, she says, is evidenced by polling numbers showing a slow but steady increase in the number of people “who feel protecting gun rights is more important than controlling access to firearms.”

“In a sense the gun control, gun reform movement that’s coming together, particularly in the wake of Sandy Hook and some of these other mass shootings, have to dig themselves out of a pretty big hole that the gun rights side has succeeded in being able to dig … over the past 15 or 20 years,” Goss says.

But Goss says the long-held belief that intensity of opinion on the gun-rights side outstrips the passion of proponents for reform is a myth. Rather than the “intensity gap,” Goss says, it’s an organizational disadvantage that has enfeebled campaigns for gun control, both nationally and locally. And Goss says that disadvantage is being diminished.

“I think there’s always  the question with the gun reform movement about sustainability, and will the energy and intensity continue after the immediate emotional trauma of some of these events wears off a bit,” Goss says. “But we’re now 16 months post Sandy Hook, so they’re not showing any signs of letting up yet.”

Braden on Tuesday invited the “gun lobby” to join her group in pushing for universal background checks, a modest step she said even the most strident defenders of Second Amendment rights should be able to embrace. But a meeting of the minds doesn’t seem likely.

Groups like Garcia’s, as well as the NRA satellite group, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, have successfully fought off proposals like Braden’s in the past. And Garcia says there’s really no point in sitting at a bargaining table when his would-be negotiators have nothing to offer him in return.

“Compromise means you get something and I get something,” Garcia says. “But there’s nothing in it for me to compromise with them. To them, compromise means, ‘give me what I want today, I’ll be back for the rest tomorrow.”

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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