Magazine | September 16, 2013, Issue

Armed and Progressive

Vermont, Second Amendment paradise

Ask an American to guess which is the most gun-friendly state in the Union and you’ll likely be treated to a whole host of wrong answers. Texas, which has a particularly strong reputation for independence, tends to come up first, with Alabama and Florida tied for second. Other questionees instinctively think of underpopulated areas: Montana? Utah? “Oh, I dunno — Idaho maybe?”

The correct answer might surprise them: It’s Vermont, land of gay marriage and legal marijuana, home to the only openly “socialist” senator in America, host to the only single-payer health-care system in the United States, and the primary stomping ground of an electorally resurgent Progressive party. Odd as it may sound, Vermont, since its establishment as a republic in 1777, has been far and away the best place in the country in which to enjoy the right to keep and bear arms. It turns out that you really can have guns and butter.

Most of the other gun-friendly states — including what are called “Vermont carry” states, such as Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Alaska, all of which have recently thrown out their rules in emulation of Vermont — arrived at their present condition after repealing restrictions that had been gradually added to their statute books between colonial times and the 1990s. Vermont, conversely, has never had any gun-control laws. Its constitution boasts a bluntly worded provision in Chapter I: “The people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State.” This is backed up by a set of watertight statutes commonly referred to as the “sportsmen’s bill of rights.” Together, the provisions have ensured that gun control remains all but impossible.

Not only do anti-gun legislators in Montpelier have their work cut out by the state’s impenetrable charter, but local governments are hamstrung by it too. No county or city can pass gun restrictions into law without the permission of the state government — and that permission is never forthcoming. Indeed, even if it were to be granted, any limitations would likely be struck down by the judicial branch. The state’s supreme court has held that all regulation of the manner in which arms may be borne is flatly unconstitutional. In consequence, Vermonters may not just carry concealed weapons without a permit, they may carry weapons openly on their hips, too. Short of a constitutional amendment, lesser gun-control measures appear not to have a chance in the state.

Strong as they are, words written down on a two-centuries-old parchment barrier cannot on their own explain why legislators are so wary of touching the issue. That comes down to politics. “Anti-gun politicians get voted out in this state,” Eddie Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, tells me. “Even the liberals have guns. Legislators don’t want anything to do with gun control.” Linda Waite-Simpson, a Democratic state representative who responded to last December’s shooting at Sandy Hook by introducing a gun-control bill, has learned this the hard way. “If a statute has any mention of firearms in it at all,” she explains, “it causes fear and trembling in the legislature.”

Indeed so. Despite Waite-Simpson’s conviction that Sandy Hook had “changed everything,” her bill to limit magazine size and expand background checks got nowhere. Now she faces a serious challenge. “She won by a small margin before she took on the gun issue, and her opponent from the last election is running against her next year,” Cutler says. “She might well lose next time.”

Vermont’s gun-control movement, such as it is, drew much of its recent confidence from a Castleton State College poll that purported to show 61 percent of Vermonters favoring a ban on “assault weapons,” 66 percent backing the banning of high-capacity magazines, and 75 percent supporting universal background checks. Proponents were also urged on by town meetings in Strafford, Woodstock, Bradford, Thetford, Norwich, and Hartland, all of which yielded resolutions pressing state lawmakers to pursue gun control. Nevertheless, Waite-Simpson regrets, all efforts “were quickly shut down in the statehouse.”

To Evan Hughes of the Vermont State Rifle and Pistol Association, this is not surprising. Hughes questions the now-famous Castleton poll, arguing that it is self-evidently ridiculous to suggest that the people of his state are more in favor of gun-control legislation than is the country at large. Other critics point to the intensity gap, which is considerable. Gun Owners of Vermont grows quickly every time new legislation is suggested. “We currently have 3,800 members,” Eddie Cutler says, “whereas Waite-Simpson’s group, ‘Gunsense Vermont,’ has 100.” Waite-Simpson readily concedes the disparity: “The gun lobby has a huge mailing list,” she allows. “When they hit ‘Send,’ everything changes. And the legislature knows it.”

#page#After he introduced a bill to ban “assault weapons” in February, Democratic state senator Philip Baruth tells me, he “received thousands of heartfelt and handwritten notes” against his proposal. “This wasn’t a boilerplate effort or a template letter from the NRA,” he adds. “You can tell when people are writing for themselves. There are a lot of people in Vermont who vote Democrat, but they see guns as part of their way of life.”

I asked Waite-Simpson why she thinks gun control is so unpopular in such an ostensibly left-leaning place. After all, it’s easy to talk about the “gun lobby,” but it doesn’t actually get a vote. “It’s a very libertarian state,” she says. “Nobody likes to be told what to do.” But, she suggests, “we’re living in truly crazy times: Nobody thinks that a school shooting could happen to them, but it could. And the gangs and drug cartels are on our city streets. Rural Vermont needs to recognize that the condition of urban Vermont requires that they be inconvenienced a little.” Cutler rejects this characterization wholesale. “We have never had a major crime problem at any point in the state’s history,” he claims. “Even back when the state was a republic we had almost no gun violence. Some people don’t even lock their doors here.”

FBI statistics support Cutler. Invariably, Vermont has the lowest murder rate in the country: In 2011, there were eight murders in the state, four of them committed with firearms; in 2010, seven people were murdered, only two of them with guns; in 2009, there were seven murders, and not a single one was committed with a firearm. In an essay discussing the abortive attempt at gun control, Andy Bromage, of the Vermont news website Seven Days, noted back in February that “most Vermonters aren’t touched by gun crimes” and that “gangs don’t terrorize our neighborhoods.” “Almost all of Vermont’s recent gun deaths have been suicides,” he added. “In the past two years, all but six of the 130 deaths caused by firearms were self-inflicted.” I suggest to Eddie Cutler that it doesn’t sound too much like they are suffering through “crazy times” in Vermont. “It’s paradise!” Cutler responds.

The safety of Vermont goes some way toward explaining the citizenry’s healthy suspicion of politicians who characterize gun control as a “crime-prevention” measure, as well as toward demonstrating why the professional opinion of the law-enforcement establishment carries so little weight. Even in liberal Burlington, the mere suggestion by the Burlington Police Officers’ Association that the city should attempt to pass an “assault weapons” ban prompted rifle ranges across the city to ban police officers from joining or training at their facilities.

Conversely, a full-throated defense of the right to bear arms is a way to make a name for yourself. Freshman senator John Rodgers, whose family has lived in the state for five generations, not only turns up at every pro-gun rally he can find, but went so far as to introduce an almost certainly unconstitutional “state sovereignty” bill that would have imposed criminal fines on any “federal officials who enforce, or attempt to enforce, federal law purporting to regulate certain firearms and firearm accessories in Vermont.”

Rodgers, whose pro-gun rhetoric makes Ted Cruz sound like Rosie O’Donnell, is a Democrat, and his take-no-prisoners approach serves to demonstrate that — unlike so many contemporary political issues — gun control does not break neatly down party lines. Of the state’s 30 senators, only seven are Republicans, while 20 are Democrats and three are Progressives; in the house, there are 98 Democrats, four Progressives, four independents, and 43 Republicans; the governor, another Democrat, was endorsed by the NRA and describes all changes to Vermont’s gun regime as mere “feel-good legislation.” It’s not your typical pro-gun cast.

So toxic is gun control that a proposed “assault weapons” ban introduced by Senator Baruth was, the senator tells me, “unpopular to the extent that even gun-safety people were beginning their sentences by saying ‘Look, I’m not crazy like Baruth!’” “I expected minority support,” he continues, “but I got zero support — even from the Progressives. Not a single other legislator would support me. There is an uneasy bargain between conservative Democrats and progressive Democrats in this state, and the one recent thing that has got them together is how much they hated my bill.”

And so, with nothing doing on the home front, pro-gun-control Vermonters look to Washington. Vermont does not prevent convicted felons from owning firearms, which means that if state police discover a felon in possession they can do little more than inform the feds. “We have very few ATF agents up here,” Waite-Simpson tells me, “so nothing ever gets enforced. We don’t even have anywhere we could store confiscated guns. We need the federal government to do its job.”

Cutler, meanwhile, is “frustrated” at the possibility that the status quo — and his group’s political success — could be overturned at the stroke of a pen. “It couldn’t be much better here,” he says. “But if they pass new laws in Washington, we have to go along with them. It’s extremely worrying.” For now at least, Vermont is as it has always been, and the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed — not even the littlest piece.

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