Will Vermont’s new gun laws help?

April 19, 2018

Robin Chadwell goes beyond the headlines to look in depth at three gun control laws.

IN A move that shocked many Vermonters, Gov. Phil Scott signed three gun-control bills into law on April 11, in a remarkable departure from the state's existing laws.

The laws include a number of measures, from banning the "bump stocks" and high-capacity magazines that have made recent mass shootings more deadly, to expanding background checks and raising the minimum age for gun buyers.

The change of heart for the governor and lawmakers is a sign of the difference in the political climate since the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the eruption of protest and outrage after.

But the content of the legislation raises questions that those who have joined the protests need to consider carefully: Will the new restrictions stop dangerous products and hold the gun industry accountable? Or will they contribute to greater prejudice and repression against those who are already vulnerable and more likely to be victims in this society? And what can be done about addressing wider issues, like health care and poverty, that contribute to violence?

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs gun control legislation outside the statehouse
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs gun control legislation outside the statehouse

THOUGH MOSTLY known across the U.S. as the home of the country's most progressive senator, Bernie Sanders, Vermont's gun laws are among the most minimal of all 50 states––until a few days ago.

Ours is a state with an ingrained hunting culture and a population where many view guns the way one might view an axe as something to cut firewood or a sledgehammer as something to drive in a fencepost.

Vermont has long considered itself immune to the type of gun violence that has destroyed lives throughout the country. Notorious mass shootings of the recent past--the 2013 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, the 2017 concert massacre in Las Vegas--prompted no action from either Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin nor Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Not only did Vermont lawmakers do nothing about these national tragedies, but the legislature has stood by while gun suicides skyrocketed in Vermont--they now account for 89 percent of all gun deaths in the state.

It wasn't necessarily that the Parkland shooting itself was the straw that broke the camel's back for Scott. The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was different in one critical way: Following it, there was mass action from below that demanded change.

Students like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Edna Chavez and Naomi Wadler called on their fellow classmates to unite and oppose the NRA and the politicians that serve it. In Vermont, the March for Our Lives in the capital of Montpelier drew 2,500 protesters on March 24. The effect of struggle and the pressure it placed on the state government is important.

Another powerful motivation was the fact that Vermont came close to its own tragedy. Two days after the Parkland shooting, Jack Sawyer, a teenager from Poultney, Vermont, was arrested and accused of plotting a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.

Sawyer's personal journal details his plan to shoot up the school: "I will gear up and let loose my anger and hatred. It'll be fantastic." It also contains passages about his depression and desire to die. "I know I'm wasting my breath as I inhale," he writes.

Sawyer had been living until recently at a residential treatment facility in Maine. He listed four days in mid-May as his "best options" for the shooting at the high school.

AS THESE laws take effect, it is imperative to not blindly celebrate them as a victory for the movement against gun violence that is intensifying the pressure on politicians around this issue like never before. We need to look at the fine print.

Perhaps the best known of the three pieces of legislation, known as S. 55, bans bump stocks and high-capacity ammunition magazines. This is a measure that socialists can absolutely support. Its chief effect will be to restrict the freedom of gun manufacturers who are making millions on sales, rather than the freedoms of working class people.

But this same law also mandates background checks for all firearm sales, which we know will disproportionately discriminate against people of color, who have been the victims of unjust law enforcement for centuries. To disarm an oppressed and targeted population without disarming the police force that has them in their sights is not progress.

Additionally, the law raises the minimum age to purchase a gun from 16 to 21. Vermont lawmakers passed this measure while still promoting Junior ROTC programs in state high schools, like the one that trained Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz. In addition, Scott has introduced a new proposal to make state colleges tuition-free for anyone who commits to serving in the state's National Guard.

The contradiction of raising the minimum age to purchase a gun while also promoting programs to militarize youth is obvious.

But this doesn't come as a surprise since Vermont's entire political leadership, whether Republican or Democratic, stands firmly behind basing the Pentagon's boondoggle warplane, the F-35, in the most densely populated area of the state, even after the state's largest city passed a referendum against the basing.

A SECOND piece of legislation, known as H. 422, will allow police to confiscate guns from anyone cited for domestic violence. Given that the presence of a firearm in a home during an incident of domestic abuse increases the likelihood of homicide by 500 percent, and that 51 percent of all homicides in Vermont from 1994 to 2014 were related to domestic violence, this bill has an understandable appeal.

Still, any law that increases the authority of an inherently unjust police force must be treated with caution, and H. 422 is no exception. It is also critical to note that H. 422 applies to a small fraction of domestic violence incidents, only where a perpetrator is arrested or cited.

Moreover, police are not a promising force to deal justly with domestic violence in general. Domestic abuse is two to four times more likely to happen in households that include a police officer than the general population.

While there are few alternatives in this society for protecting victims of domestic violence, the police force is still inadequate. Violence in the household, like violence elsewhere, is a consequence of a violent and exploitative social order––which police have a key role in defending.

The third bill, known as S.221, will allow law enforcement officers to file petitions to the Family Division of Superior Court in order to temporarily remove guns from those who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Importantly, this law doesn't give police the right to take away firearms based only on their own judgment––the courts will be involved, too. But we've yet to see how easy the courts will make it for Vermont police to file these petitions and be granted an "extreme risk protection order," as the bill defines it.

The person's criminal history is third on a list of items that the court is supposed to evaluate to determine how much of a risk the person identified by an officer is. As in the case of background checks, people of color, who are already subjected to racist policing and arrests, would undoubtedly be disproportionately affected.

The Vermont pro-gun lobby and the NRA are opposed to all of these measures, and they are threatening to rally opposition to the governor and other lawmakers at election time. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take a critical look at these laws.

UNSURPRISINGLY ABSENT from the gun legislation signed by Scott were any reforms--like divestment from military spending in favor of funding education--that could do something about the social causes of gun violence.

An article in the Rutland Herald suggests that schools like Fair Haven intend to push for a larger police presence in their buildings and at school-sponsored events. While the fear that leads to such proposals is understandable, we need to insist that militarizing schools is not a solution to violence.

Police are a part of the violence that we must fight to eradicate. If Black and Brown people are the first to be shot by law enforcement on the street––including for things like holding a cellphone––who is to say that they won't be targeted in schools?

Adequately addressing the causes of violence in our state and across the country will require a reallocation of funds from military spending to health care, education and other social programs that help to meet people's basic human needs. It is when those fundamental needs aren't met that violence thrives.

Scott may have done an about-face on gun control legislation, but when it comes to education––which has a key role in lowering crime and gun violence in society––he remains an enemy of the people.

Funding schools to shrink class sizes and provide students with more than one guidance counselor per 400 students is an example of a measure that could potentially prevent school shootings. But Scott isn't interested in anything of the sort––he has been gutting education funding since he took office over a year ago.

In the fall of 2017, Scott told school boards across the state to be "cost conscious," resulting in only a 1.5 percent spending increase on education statewide. Then, this March, Scott announced that despite school boards being cost-conscious, he was still planning on cutting another $40 million from school districts in order to fill budget gaps for the 2018 fiscal year.

In January, when he budget proposal for 2019, the hits to education kept coming. The Scott administration unveiled a laundry list of ways to cut anywhere from $75 million to $94 million in K-12 public education spending.

Now, following the arrest and accusations against Jack Sawyer, Scott is finally requesting more school funding from the legislature. But he let it be known that his proposal is for $5 million in "school safety grants" that will likely station law enforcement officers in classrooms, rather than counselors.

The struggle against violence isn't over in Vermont with the passage of these three laws. Even if some forms of gun control are appropriate and necessary, they alone can't solve the nationwide epidemic of violence we face.

But if we've learned anything from the Parkland students, it is that change comes when discontented people unite to demand it, not when we vote the right politicians into office or when we give the police more powers.

Come the elections in November, corporate-backed politicians will try to tell us otherwise to deter us from our path. It's imperative to drown out their lies with the sound of solidarity and mass action from below.

Further Reading

From the archives