Montpelier, Vt. — This past Saturday, more than 300 Vermonters gathered at the statehouse in Montpelier to protest recent attempts by Vermont legislators to impose stricter gun control measures in the state.
These proposed regulations — prompted in part by the recent Newtown, Conn. tragedy — reflect a renewed national interest in gun control.
Vermont legislators have proposed two recent gun control bills. The first, proposed on Jan. 15 by Sen. Philip Baruth (D) attempted to “prohibit the manufacture, possessions or transfer of semi-automatic assault weapons.”
Gun rights activists reacted with vehement protest and convinced Baruth to withdraw his bill.
“Large capacity magazines have been used in just about every mass shooting in the last three decades,” said Representative Linda-Waite Simpson (D), who proposed a second gun control measure in the House after Baruth’s was retracted. “I just want them to have to take their finger off the trigger to change the magazines.”
Waite-Simpson’s bill — which awaits final deliberation — does not prohibit the purchase of semi-automatic weapons, but it does limit the size of removable ammunition clips, bars convicts from carrying weapons and institutes stricter background-checks.
“There are a lot of parents in the state who I believe are really quite concerned about how easy it is to access firearms and I stand with those parents,” said Waite-Simpson. “I am trying to give them a voice in this debate.”
This debate occurs in the unique context of historical gun ownership in the state and in America as a nation.
“There’s a passion for firearms in Vermont,” explained Henry Parro, president of Parro’s Gun Shop and Police Supply, Inc. in Waterbury, Vt.
This passion extends far beyond Vermont’s borders. Indeed, a passion for firearms is a defining characteristic of America — and has been for along time.
Americans own more guns than citizens of any other country in the world, with more than 300,000,000 non-military firearms owned by Americans as of 2009.
There are 88.8 guns for every hundred Americans, which means that America also has the highest gun ownership per capita of any nation in the world — a full 34 percent higher than war-torn Yemen, the next highest nation on that list.
The gun — a symbol of mythic individualism and independence — has long been a central icon in the American popular conscience due to its important role in the history of American independence, subsistence hunting and westward expansion.
Guns, however, have always had critics, and the debate about the role of guns is as old as American gun culture itself.
In the early 19th century, the firearm argument crystallized into a debate about the the Second Amendment, which states:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Proponents of gun-control laws argued that the Second Amendment implies a collective right to bear arms, in the form of a “well regulated militia.” Advocates of unrestricted gun ownership, however, argue that the second amendment guarantees the right of all individuals to bear arms regardless of military affiliation.
A 2008 Supreme Court case — District of Columbia v. Heller — ruled that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia,” thereby guaranteeing American citizens their right to keep and bear arms and ending the collective vs. individual debate.
The restrictions that apply to gun ownership in different states, however, vary greatly — Vermont embodies the mythical spirit of gun ownership perhaps more than any other state.
Vermont gun laws are notoriously lenient. Most states require gun owners to apply for permits in order to carry concealed weapons. Vermont is one of four states that makes no such provision — in fact, in Vermont, anyone over the age of 16 may purchase and carry a handgun without the consent of a parent or guardian.
Gun-rights activists use the phrase “Vermont carry” to refer to the right of individuals to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
The laxness of gun laws in Vermont is not accidental — guns play a particularly important role in Vermont culture due to the prevalence of game hunting in the state. As of 2007, 42 percent of Vermont residents were gun owners.
Despite lenient regulations, the state has the sixth-lowest firearm murder-rate in the nation and the fifth-lowest firearm assault-rate in the nation according to FBI statistics.
Some gun advocates point to the permissive culture as a reason for low crime rates.
“It keeps the criminals in check,” said Parro. “Because we have no gun laws to speak of, you can pretty much be assured that there is a firearm in every home … if I was a criminal I wouldn’t want to get shot — or have that risk.”
Gun rights activists hail Vermont as a national model for positive gun ownership, pointing to the low incidence of gun-related violence as evidence of a responsible gun culture.
“We have tremendous respect for our natural resources, for hunting and a really responsible approach to using weapons,” said Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin in an interview with the Burlington Free Press. “We use them as a tool to prosperity.”
There are many factors that complicate Shumlin’s view of guns in Vermont. An avid hunter and a regular handler of firearms himself, the governor has a perspective shaped by his personal affinity for hunting and the generous contributions to his re-election made by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
However, guns remain problematic in other states.
Recent tragedies such as the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. and the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn. are some of the many reminders of the dangers of guns when they are used inappropriately.
“Newtown could have been anywhere. Columbine could have been anywhere in this country. Aurora could have been anywhere in this country,” said Waite-Simpson. “These things are not limited to state lines.”
Proponents of stricter gun control claim that stricter gun laws and more regulation will prevent incidents like Aurora and Sandy Hook, while gun-rights advocates disagree.
“It’s a band-aid on a broken leg approach,” said Parro.
“[In] the incident at Sandy Hook, many federal and state laws were broken before anyone died,” continued Parro. “If it were five more federal laws that he broke, would it change his mind? I don’t think so.”
The role of guns in any state is a complex one. While many people blindly accept guns as parts of their lives, still more see guns as useless killing machines. These misperceptions frustrate gun owners and complicate gun-control issues.
“[Some people think that] when somebody does something bad with a firearm, it’s not the person’s fault,” said Parro. “It’s the firearm’s fault.”
Parro and others are frustrated that society frequently blames the gun industry for complex problems like shootings.
“Why is it that when somebody is DUI — driving down the interstate — and they cross the center line, and they kill a family of six, why isn’t it the car’s fault? Why isn’t it Budweiser’s fault?” asked Parro.
Despite the many double standards guns face, they do serve an important purpose in many areas of the country. In rural states like Vermont, guns play an important role in wildlife management, whereas in urban areas most guns are owned for self-defense purposes.
The differing purposes of gun ownership determine the prevalence of different types of guns owned in various areas. Most Vermont guns are hunting rifles, while most guns owned in urban areas are defense-oriented handguns.
Much of the modern debate on gun regulation hinges on the discussion of still another class of firearm — assault weapons. It is argued that these weapons — which are not designed for hunting game or self-defense — have no place in civilian society.
This manner of thinking is what motivated Baruth to propose his bill on Jan. 15.
The bill prompted a massive public outcry in support of gun ownership. More than 250 gun-rights activists gathered in the Vermont statehouse in the days following its proposal to protest the bill and argue for the maintenance of Vermont gun rights.
“Because somebody did a bad thing in Connecticut, the people under the gold dome in Montpelier are saying we should punish the law-abiding citizens of Vermont for this other guy’s action,” said Parro, encapsulating the argument of the protestors. “That’s wrong.”
“Enough is enough,” continued Parro. “Let’s go after and prosecute the people who are breaking the law … instead of blaming law-abiding citizens.”
By Jan. 20, public opinion convinced Baruth to withdraw the bill — but not before it generated considerable controversy.
When the City Council in Burlington, Vt. voted in favor of advancing the bill before it was tabled, a local gun range decided to bar Burlington law enforcement officials from their facilities as an act of protest.
Gun control advocates expressed frustration with protestors, who they feel often overreact and ignore the finer points of legislation.
“It’s very hard to have a rational conversation about what we really should be doing or not doing,” said Waite-Simpson. “It just seems that whenever there is any kind of legislation that even mentions the word ‘firearms’ it just creates a panic and a paranoia about infringing on Second Amendment rights.”
Tensions between gun-rights proponents and critics in Vermont remain at a hot simmer. The assembly of protestors both for and against expanded gun control proves that the Vermont community remains divided on the issue.
It is unlikely that the gun industry in Vermont will slow down. Parro said gun sales have increased since the two bills have been introduced.
As Vermont and the rest of the nation continue to debate the role of firearms in society, it is imperative that the roles of firearms are considered in the context of the uses of guns in different parts of the country and the culture surrounding guns and gun-ownership in a given area.
“Gun control has been a debate for many years and probably will be a debate for many more years,” said Parro.
“Unless we look at the whole spectrum of the social fabric, approaching one aspect is not going to fix the problem,” said Waite-Simpson.
While Vermont won’t see the control debate disappear any time soon — guns are far too important as hunting tools, historical symbols and mechanisms of self-defense to go away — Vermont may set a new standard for the nation on gun regulation as this bill works its way through the legislative process.