Hundreds of Vermonters on Tuesday night debated proposed legislation that would expand background checks for gun buyers and impose other new firearms restrictions.
At a packed Statehouse, the Senate Judiciary and Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony from supporters and opponents of the legislation, though opponents in the hall and nearby rooms where video was piped in easily outnumbered supporters.
Several opponents pointed to Vermont's rank in FBI statistics as the safest state in the country. They argued that Senate Bill 31 isn't needed.
"If I'm being assaulted on a city street, I'd rather have a .38 on me than a copy of S. 31," said Erika Eldred.
Supporters of the legislation told emotional stories of themselves or family members being a victim of violence and argued that easy access to firearms was one cause.
"My mother, Helen Klassen, was murdered 46 years ago in Indiana in violence that involved a gun," said Bess Klassen-Landis of Windsor. No one was convicted, but the killer was believed to be a patient of Klassen-Landis' father, a psychiatrist, she said. "When my 11-year-old sister came home on the early bus that day, she found our mother naked, bruised, lying in a pool of blood. She had been shot four times."
Others spoke of the fear triggered in children in school drills meant to prepare for a mass shooting.
Bruce MacLean, a retired teacher at Oxbow Union High School in Bradford, told of living in fear that "one day, some distraught, anguished individual would get off Route 5, walk into that school and start blasting away."
One sign of the passionate support for gun rights stirs in Vermont, otherwise one of the most liberal states in the country: Tuesday's hearing included two unscheduled recesses after opponents of the legislation offered raucous applause against the instruction of Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, who chaired the session.
Statehouse observers said it was the biggest crowd to descend on the Statehouse since 2000, when Vermont debated and ultimately passed a civil unions law, making the state to grant marriage-like rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples.
Opponents insisted the bill would put Vermont on a path to gun registration and possibly confiscation, either by the state or federal government.
"Mao, Hitler, Stalin and Castro all instituted gun confiscation before they killed their own people," said Bob Shea of Fairfax. "We are headed on a slippery slope toward confiscation."
Some lawmakers said the bill would face slim chances. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat and lifelong hunter, opposes it.
Why the Second Amendment fervor in a state that Election Day exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and other media have found to be among the most liberal?
"I think it's a result of years and years of Vermonters respecting guns as a tool to manage wildlife and to put food on the table," Shumlin said in an interview. "That's what motivates us to own a gun. It's not necessarily what motivates someone who lives in Manhattan to own a gun."
Whether people grew up in a hunting family as he did "really influences how you look at this," the governor added.
Hunters have nothing to worry about, said Ann Braden of Brattleboro, president of the group Gun Sense Vermont, which supports the measure.
"This legislation doesn't affect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. It's focused exclusively on keeping guns out of the hands of convicted abusers, violent felons, and drug traffickers," she said.
FBI figures showed Vermont was the safest state in the country in 2013, with 115 violent crimes per 100,000 people. That was less than a third the national rate of 368 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
That's often attributed to having no big urban areas - the state's largest city is Burlington, population about 40,000. A sparser population and civic traditions like the New England town meeting also are sometimes cited. "I think there's a strong sense of community in Vermont," said Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn.
The bill, sponsored by the top three Democrats in the Vermont Senate, has three main components:
- It would expand background checks to private sales, with an exemption for sales between family members. If one neighbor wants to sell a gun to another, they must approach a federally-licensed firearms dealer, who would run an electronic background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
- It would make it a violation of state law as well as federal law for convicted felons to possess firearms. This would give state and local police new power to enforce the law.
- It would require that anyone found by a court to have a mental disorder making him or her a danger to self or others, or who had been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, or who had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, to have that information forwarded to the federal background check database for exclusion from being allowed to buy a gun.