Governor takes heat during local visit
BRATTLEBORO — When Gov. Phil Scott awoke at his home near Montpelier on Monday to an unwelcome spring blanket of snow, he figured a scheduled trip south to Brattleboro would bring a warmer climate.
Then he arrived to a pair of protesters standing in his reserved parking space.
"My guns are innocent," read one of their signs.
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," read the other.
Scott, accompanied by an aide and a state trooper, listened as the demonstrators, upset with his April 11 approval of several gun-control laws, asked if he was considering repealing his support.
"No, no, I'm not," he said before walking away.
So goes the governor's new normal. Last year, during his first appearance at the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Governor's lunch, Scott talked business. This year, with more than 100 attendees having eyed the protesters, he ditched any routine remarks and addressed the issue head-on.
"Discussions around these measures have been difficult, emotional and complex," Scott told the crowd. "I know I may lose some support, but the alternative was to do nothing. If we don't try to reduce the possibility of a tragedy, if we don't try to prevent another death, in my mind, we would have failed Vermonters."
Inside, Scott received a round of applause. Outside, demonstrators said they were only starting to make noise.
Jim and Annette Hazell said they drove a half-hour from Searsburg to protest, just as they did when they traveled to Montpelier to watch the governor sign the gun-control legislation.
"There I screamed out, 'You're a traitor,'" Jim Hazell said. "I've never had a problem owning a gun and now he says we have a problem?"
The governor said he wasn't surprised by the demonstrators, who are popping up statewide.
"It was a little more intense up in Newport," he said.
With a state trooper by his side, Scott said he was responding by educating people about what he actually approved. The governor said although one law raises the age at which someone can buy a firearm from 18 to 21, it only pertains to people who aren't in the military or law enforcement or haven't taken a hunter safety course.
"People also think we're coming to take their gun or magazine," he continued. "There's nobody coming to take anything."
In response, protesters said their biggest complaint wasn't about anything specific but the fact Scott signed a bill at all.
"He swore he would not enact any new gun laws," Jim Hazell said, "and then he went back on his word."
The governor said his shift came this winter after the shooting deaths of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Florida, and subsequent arrest of an 18-year-old Vermonter on charges he was planning a similar event at Fair Haven Union High School.
"I've hunted and fished my entire life and I never felt the need to change our gun laws," Scott told the crowd. "I figured since we were such a small, tightknit state, we were somehow insulated from violence."
Scott hoped his change of heart would inspire legislators to do the same and approve a "forthcoming policy package" to reduce school spending, noting the state's per-pupil costs were double the national average.
"As much as we complain about health care, education is the single largest expenditure in state government," he said. "The reality is we have an incredibly inefficient K-12 system."
The governor also encouraged people to hear each other out.
"We've reached a dangerous tipping point where many on both sides have given up on listening," he said. "Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry social media posts where facts no longer seem to matter. We're being challenged to do the right thing. We can disagree, but we can do so respectfully and civilly."
Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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