GunSense Vermont founder seeks new direction in novel and Senate campaign

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BRATTLEBORO — Even as she founded GunSense Vermont in early 2013, Ann Braden considered herself an unlikely leader for a political movement.

So it wasn't necessarily a difficult decision for the Brattleboro resident to step away from that group recently in order to pursue two other interests — the publication of her first novel and preparation for her first state Senate campaign.

Braden says she believes GunSense has made progress despite the fact that state lawmakers have not passed a universal background check law,which is the group's central policy goal.

But she believes it is the right time, both for GunSense and for herself, to move in a new direction.

"I was wearing the advocate hat because someone needed to, but there are a lot of issues I care about that I want to be working on," Braden said.

Braden's name has become synonymous with Vermont's gun debate over the past four years or so. But the former middle school social studies teacher says she entered that fray without any intention of becoming a public figure.

Braden was a stay-at-home mom of two young children in Brattleboro when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people - 20 children and six adults - on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Feeling like she should take some kind of action, Braden and her husband demonstrated for tougher gun laws in downtown Brattleboro shortly after Newtown. They subsequently attended a march in Washington, D.C.

"After that, "I felt, OK, well, we did something. I felt kind of like I had done what I needed to do," Braden recalled. "But at the end of the march, one of the organizers said, 'When you go back home, try to do one thing every day for this issue.'"

That exhortation stuck with her, as did the memorials Braden saw when she visited her mother and stepfather in Newtown. She resolved to stay involved with gun issues when she returned home.

But she could find no groups dedicated to stronger gun laws in Vermont. She started an online petition and ended up at a Statehouse press conference, and soon GunSense was born - with Braden taking a leadership role.

It was a lesson in "how powerful it is when people come together," Braden said. But it also was a lesson in how quickly an average citizen could get swept up in a contentious political issue.

"I was really naive, which helps you get into a tough issue," she said with a laugh.

The group pushed for universal background checks for all gun purchases. The lack of background checks for private sales at gun shows or online is a "dangerous loophole" that allows weapons to more easily fall into the hands of criminals, Braden argued at a Statehouse press conference in early 2015.

Braden sees that as a watershed year for GunSense, although a bill that eventually passed didn't mandate universal background checks. Instead, it contained provisions designed to stop gun purchases by people with certain criminal convictions or severe mental illness.

Though universal background checks weren't part of the final mix, "the fact that we were able to get it on the agenda was progress," Braden said. "That by itself was a huge success."

"It was amazing to have reasonable people discussing the issue of guns," she added.

That discussion, however, continues to be a difficult one. Groups like Gun Owners of Vermont and the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs have staunchly opposed GunSense's lobbying efforts.

Evan Hughes, the federation's vice president, argues that expanded background checks legislation "is a solution in search of a problem" and does not represent good public policy.

"The background checks that are being promoted are not 'universal,' as the majority of states do not require these checks," Hughes said. "They are also not 'universal,' as violent criminals simply evade them."

Expanded background checks surfaced again in the state Legislature in 2017, but the initiative did not have much traction.

The fight apparently is not over: In a recent statement, GunSense Acting Executive Director Clai Lasher-Sommers said she and board members will work to "streamline the organization's operations and increase its capacity over the coming months to continue the fight for universal background checks."

Lasher-Sommers also lauded Braden's work with GunSense on that issue.

"The people of Vermont owe Ann a debt of gratitude for opening the door to conversations and legislation that will ultimately improve public safety for all Vermonters, as well as people beyond its borders," Lasher-Sommers said.

Braden believes GunSense represents "a movement that has helped rebalance the landscape." But she's ready to turn the page.

That will happen literally in one sense, as Braden's first novel is scheduled for publication next fall.

Aimed at a "middle grade" audience, the book - tentatively titled "Zoey and the Screaming Monkeys" - tells the tale of a 12-year-old who is struggling to make her way amid poverty in southern Vermont.

"The world is throwing all sorts of stuff at her, and she has to find a way to realize that she's actually stronger than people are telling her she is, and that she can find her own voice," Braden said.

It's not too far of a stretch to connect one of the book's themes to the verbal abuse Braden says she has endured as the leader of a gun-control group.

"One of the issues in this book is emotional abuse," she said. "I've only had a hint of it, but I've worked closely with women who are victims of domestic violence. And that has been the inspiration - the strength that they have to keep going and to find the path forward."

Braden believes her path forward also should include elective office: She's planning a state Senate run in 2020.

She's interested in issues like addressing Vermont's opiate-addiction crisis and curbing the state's rising health care costs.

"I'm fascinated by figuring out how we can reduce them," Braden said on the latter topic. "Because I think it's this bubble that's pushing everything out of whack."

Braden will dip a toe into state politics by serving as a policy liaison for the Vermont Democratic Party during the coming legislative session. But she believes a run for office in 2018 would have been premature.

"I'm really excited to spend the next two and half years listening to all kinds of people," Braden said. "I want the time to really know the issues inside and out."

Mike Faher can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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