BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – Monday’s mass shooting in Colorado is pushing gun control once again to the top of the national political agenda. In Vermont, towns and cities have passed their own gun ordinances with limited success.
Just days before Monday’s shooting in Boulder, which killed 10 people, a judge ruled that the city does not have the authority to enforce its own 2018 ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“It feels like Groundhog Day, but Groundhog Day ends for Bill Murray,” said Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden County, who has fought for stricter laws in Vermont. In 2014, Burlington voters approved charter changes to ban guns in bars, letting police seize them from suspects of domestic violence, and creating requirements that they are stored safely. But measures then languished in the Legislature, where lawmakers failed to approve them.
Baruth sees a connection between gun ordinances in Burlington and Boulder. “Whenever you have sensible gun laws deliberately hamstrung at the federal level, you have state action. When it’s hamstrung at the state level, you have local action,” he said.
Former Burlington city council member and state rep Kurt Wright remembers the debate in 2014. He says a 1980s Vermont law referred to as the “Sportsman’s Bill of Rights” limits a town’s ability to enact gun laws and instead requires municipalities to pass charter changes that must get legislative approval. “It sounds easy, but once you exempt Burlington, then the state would feel like – how do we not exempt Rutland, Montpelier, Barre, or any other town that wants to be exempted,” Wright said. He says the policies have to go through the Statehouse to avoid a patchwork of local laws.
Second Amendment advocates say preemption laws like these are aimed at making sure law-abiding citizens don’t accidentally break the law, such as accidentally bringing a gun into a town where it’s banned. “We take that for granted, but we don’t think of it in the context that it is somewhat of a victory for our rights,” said Bill Moore with the Vermont Traditions Coalition. “We don’t realize it because we do it every day and take it for granted.”
In the wake of a school shooting scare in 2018, Vermont passed sweeping gun laws including a red flag law, magazine capacity limits, and background checks. Governor Phil Scott signed them publicly on the Statehouse steps, angering some gun advocates.
This session, lawmakers are mulling over a bill sponsored by Senator Baruth which would ban guns statewide in all Vermont hospitals, though there is disagreement over whether it would prevent violence. In the context of the latest shooting and the pandemic, Baruth calls his bill a canary in the coal mine. “If that can’t get through the House and be signed by the governor, nothing can,” he said.
Baruth says that ultimately, meaningful reform needs to happen in Washington to get guns out of politics.
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