Rally for gun control draws crowd in Montpelier
MONTPELIER >> More than 100 people gathered on the Statehouse lawn Thursday to call for stricter gun control laws.
Under a still-sweltering evening sun, people in the crowd sported green Gun Sense Vermont T-shirts and carried banners and signs.
The rally, organized by state Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, drew lawmakers, organizations and officials from around the state, as well as Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.
Many who spoke, including Baruth, noted the size of the crowd in support of action on what has often been considered an off-limits topic in Vermont elections.
A proposal to expand background checks on gun sales went before the Legislature as part of a broader bill on gun control in 2015. The universal background checks provision was stripped from the legislation, but a version of the bill did pass and got the governor's signature.
Speakers at Thursday's rally made clear they would like to see action on universal background checks when the Legislature convenes in January.
Three contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination spoke at the rally, calling for thorough background checks on all gun sales. Current law does not require them for private sales, allowing people to purchase guns in certain scenarios, including over the internet, without undergoing a check.
Former Google executive Matt Dunne said that when he grew up in Hartland, gun ownership was common and gun safety classes were taught in his public school. "Vermont has changed," he said.
"It is time, it is past time, for us to ensure that terrorists, repeat domestic abusers and violent criminals are not allowed to purchase a gun in the state of Vermont," Dunne said.
Sue Minter, former transportation secretary, recalled meeting with Gun Sense Vermont director Ann Braden early in her campaign and speaking about universal background checks. "And I came to understand that this is not only an issue that is the right issue, it is the right time," Minter said.
She referenced shootings in South Carolina, Orlando and elsewhere. "We know that there are shootings every day, and enough is enough," Minter said.
She mentioned the shooting death of social worker Lara Sobel last year in Barre but also raised the issue of guns in domestic violence. "What I know is that so many of our challenges are actually behind closed doors," she said.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat, said he has witnessed the impact that a military assault weapon can have while in regions like Syria and Iraq.
"They are weapons that are designed for the battlefield, and what do you want to do on the battlefield? You want to kill large numbers of people in a very short period of time," he said.
Assault weapons have "no civilian use," he said, calling for a ban on the sale of large-capacity military-style assault weapons.
The three Democratic candidates' Republican counterparts, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and businessman Bruce Lisman, have said publicly in the past that they do not believe there is any need to change the state's gun laws.
The three candidates for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor also joined the call for universal background checks at the rally.
Rep. Kesha Ram, of Burlington, presented gun control as an issue closely linked to domestic violence.
While taking calls on a hotline for battered women, she recalled, she heard from people afraid to leave an abusive partner because of guns.
"Our homicide rate doesn't even begin to tell the story of so many people behind closed doors who feel that they can't leave in those situations," Ram said.
House Speaker Shap Smith said he will work with hunters and gun owners in Vermont to find consensus on the issue.
"Because we're not going to be able to pass this legislation if it's an urban-versus-rural issue in the state of Vermont," Smith said. "We're only going to be able to do it if it's a Vermont issue that all Vermonters care about."
Smith said he lived in Newtown, Conn., for the first five years of his life. He recalled telephoning a friend who still lives there on the day in 2012 when a shooter entered an elementary school and killed 26 children and adults.
"We're not taking away any rights," Smith said. "We're giving people their lives."
Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, backing the push for universal background checks, called for civility in the debate going forward.
"We do have a challenge ahead of us, there's no doubt about that," Zuckerman said. "This is a very deeply passionate issue on all sides."
Alan Perkins drove from Woodstock with a group of people to join the rally.
Perkins, who said he was a former hunter and former gun owner, described himself as a firm believer in universal background checks.
"Too many people are dying from guns," he said.
Hillary Twining, of East Dover, said after the rally that she was inspired by the event, which lasted more than an hour.
Twining said she has always seen some need for tighter gun laws, but the shooting in Newtown propelled her to take action. She became involved with Gun Sense Vermont shortly after it launched in the wake of that event.
"I can't believe that there are as many candidates running for office that are so publicly willing to support this issue," Twining said. "It's amazing how different it is from 2013."
"Universal background checks, which seemed like too heavy a lift the first time we went through this, suddenly seem within reach," Twining said.
Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger.