Our opinion: Choosing action over expedience
The seismic shift on the issue of gun violence since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was in evidence in Montpelier on Wednesday, when Gov. Phil Scott signed into law tough new gun statutes that could not have been anticipated only two months ago. A Republican who was a longtime opponent of new gun laws, the governor said "we choose action over inaction" on gun violence, and it is a choice that must be made across the nation.
It was a forthright and personal speech from the governor, who acknowledged he was deeply shaken when, on February 16, just two days after the fatal shootings by a disgruntled student in Parkland that left 17 dead, he was handed a document detailing the foiled plans of an 18-year-old in Poultney to allegedly carry out a shooting at the local high school. Poultney had come perilously close to its own Parkland massacre, shattering the governor's belief that the small, closely knit state was immune from the gun violence plaguing much of the country.
"But I was wrong," declared Gov. Scott. "And that's not always easy to admit."
The response to gun violence comes in the form of three bills, two of which address upgrades to the state's mental health system and provide additional provisions to protect victims of domestic violence. The third bill, which introduces new gun safety provisions, is controversial, although the provisions are not substantially different than those in neighboring Massachusetts, which has some of the strictest and most statistically successful gun laws in the nation. The legislation expands background checks to private sales, raises the age to purchase a firearm to 21, limits magazine size to 15 rounds for handguns and 10 for rifles, and bans bump stocks, the devices that increase the firing ability of a gun and that were instrumental in the high death toll in the Las Vegas gun massacre.
The signing ceremony drew orange-clad protesters who heckled the governor, a hunter himself, even when he mentioned that the state would be investing $5 million in school safety improvements. The protesters were engaging in their First Amendment rights, however, just as the governor was acting within his Second Amendment rights as a public official to regulate firearms. The Amendment begins with the words "A well-regulated ..." and a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld government's right to regulate firearms.
The jeering detractors lent weight to Gov. Scott's assertion Wednesday that the deterioration of public discourse has helped create a climate for violence in America.
The governor observed that the exchange of insults and slurs on social media and the disrespect by cable news talking heads shown toward differing opinions have created a situation in which "we can't debate the issues and find common ground or agree to disagree." This, he continued, has stoked "the embers of hate and bigotry and blame," and no one should be shocked when an individual consumed by rage and bitterness employs a powerful weapon against his perceived enemies.
Perhaps the most remarkable portion of the governor's speech was his acknowledgement that there would be political repercussions resulting from his rethought position on gun regulations — and that he was prepared to accept the consequences. This is a startlingly honest position to take at a time when so many elected representatives, primarily in Washington D.C., put political expedience and the next election campaign before the best interests of the nation and its citizens.
We urge other political leaders, in particular the congressional Republicans bought off by and/or terrified of the National Rifle Association, to develop a backbone and show the same courage and independence of Gov. Scott.
To make a dent in the gun violence that bloodies America requires not just smart policies but the political determination in the face of big money and intimidating tactics to assure that those policies actually become reality. Vermont's governor and lawmakers have provided an admirable template for the rest of the nation.
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