Talking civilly about 'Guns in our Community'

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BRATTLEBORO >> Ask local police captain Mark Carignan to speak at a "Guns in Our Community" program and he'll start with a seemingly simple summation: "Vermont is unique — we have pretty high rates of gun ownership but relatively low rates of gun crime."

But that beginning isn't the end of the conversation.

"The area we struggle with is guns can have, if bad and impulsive decisions are made, pretty dramatic consequences. We see this with suicides and domestic violence homicides. It's a very complex issue, and I don't know what the solutions are."

That last statement was the one and only thing all agreed on at a Brattleboro Museum & Art Center event Thursday night tied to its exhibit "Up in Arms: Taking Stock of Guns."

The museum has spent almost two years putting together a show to "provide a platform for reasoned discussion," director Danny Lichtenfeld told audience members before inviting them to pose questions to a panel of local experts.

"People have been getting murdered since Cain and Abel," one man asked. "Do you honestly think you can stop any of this?"

Ann Braden, the leader of Gun Sense Vermont, said she started her grass-roots advocacy group to try.

"As a society we have a responsibility to look at what laws are on the books and how they are being enforced," Braden said. "It's important to recognize how many gun owners are responsible and take safety seriously. My organization is focused on the small fraction of people that most agree should not have access to guns."

Gun Sense Vermont is seeking universal background checks in hopes of keeping violent felons from buying firearms.

"It's not pro- or anti-gun, it's gun responsibility," Braden said. "There is a very strong valuing of the Second Amendment, and we want to make sure that right is upheld for law-abiding citizens. Finding middle ground has been important to me."

Another audience member, noting a string of mass shootings from Sandy Hook and San Bernardino, asked "Is there something we should do now to prepare?"

In response, Kelly Price, a state game warden who stressed he wasn't speaking for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, said the only thing more difficult than the times was the ability to answer that question to everyone's satisfaction.

"We have a lot of laws already to protect the public and influence gun ownership that don't get enforced," Price said. "And you have two types of people. Law-abiding citizens and individuals who are not. There is no law you can put in place that is going to change that dynamic."

That didn't mean Price was advocating inaction: "Do we have areas of improvement? We do have work to do. How that comes into play will take time and serious consideration."

The 90-minute event was noteworthy for its civility, with panelists and the public agreeing on the need for safety and responsibility. Yet it ended with more questions than answers.

Carignan, for example, noted while most Vermonters would agree that mentally unstable people shouldn't have guns, they also want to respect them publicly.

"We want to identify people but we don't want to label them," the police captain said. "Where's that line? We need to figure that out."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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