Universal Background Checks For All Gun Sales In Vermont: Legislation Faces Staunch Opposition, Implementation Challenges

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter seen here wearing a Gun Sense Vermont t-shirt, rallying supporters in favor of universal background checks in Montpelier. J.D. Thomason

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter seen here wearing a Gun Sense Vermont t-shirt, rallying supporters in favor of universal background checks in Montpelier. J.D. Thomason

Originally published in The County Courier.

On August 4, state Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) and other leading Democratic lawmakers joined with Gun Sense Vermont to host a rally supporting legislation increasing restrictions on gun sales in Vermont. The issue, however, has been divisive since the organization Gun Sense Vermont began promoting tighter controls on gun sales in the state. The most recent effort to implement universal background checks has drawn additional criticism as Vermont remains one of the states suffering the least from gun crime.

Ann Braden, lead organizer for Gun Sense Vermont, said the rally for universal background checks in Montpelier was about “keeping guns out of the hands of known criminals and people tragically deemed dangerously ill.” Joined by Ms. Braden and Sen. Baruth was a veritable Who’s Who of Democratic legislators including all major Democratic Party candidates seeking state office along with Sue Minter and David Zuckerman.

Peter Galbraith, then running as a candidate for governor in the Democratic primary, also spoke at the event and reiterated the public safety narrative of preceding speakers. But in Galbraith’s comments, he alluded to other motives for the sudden outpouring of anti-gun sentiment from state Democrats.

After denouncing the National Rifle Association for being “a corporate expenditure entity that seeks to influence our elections,” Galbraith suddenly turned his criticism away from the conservative opposition and placed his fellow Democrats in the crosshairs.

“A billionaire friend of one of the [Democratic] candidates for governor…shoved $200,000 in the last minute – last four days of our campaign – to reshape our election,” Galbraith said. “Yeah, okay, they’re for my good liberal friends, but it’s the same game that would be played by the NRA and its allies. We ought not tolerate this kind of special interest money in Vermont and I call on my competitors, Matt and Sue [Minter], to reject this money – to tell bluntly that they don’t tolerate it. I know they feigned surprise that it occurred. Okay. If it’s really surprising just say ‘No, it doesn’t belong in the state of Vermont.”

During Galbraith’s passionate outburst against “soft money” in Vermont politics, David Zuckerman leaned over to whisper something to Sen. Baruth who then calmly reached forward from the group of Democratic candidates to tug on Galbraith’s coat, obviously signaling the speaker to bring his remarks to a close.

Peter Galbraith, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, denouncing the influx of "soft money" in Vermotn state politics. J.D. Thomason

Peter Galbraith, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, denouncing the influx of “soft money” in Vermont state politics. J.D. Thomason

Galbraith’s remarks, however, continue to foster suspicions that Braden’s organization, Gun Sense Vermont, is an extension of efforts to intensify gun control across the United States. The effort is largely driven by Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and currently rated as the 8th richest person in the world. Bloomberg was instrumental in the formation of Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006 and currently serves as Co-chairperson of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that supports expanding background checks for prospective gun buyers.

The tone of the Gun Sense rally for universal background checks was set by Miro Weinberger, Mayor of Burlington, who has joined three other Vermont mayors in Mayors Against Illegal Guns advocating stiff new gun restrictions in their cities. During his speech Weinberger declared a “new day in Montpelier…that shows we’re going to deal with this major public safety issue of gun violence in the years ahead.”

Burlington Mayor, Miro Weinberger, describes the "major public safety issue" of gun violence in Vermont. In 2013, Weinberger joined the Bloomberg organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns. J.D. Thomason

Burlington Mayor, Miro Weinberger, describes the “major public safety issue” of gun violence in Vermont. In 2013, Weinberger joined the Bloomberg organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns. J.D. Thomason

Amongst the crowd, however, there was disagreement over the assertion that Vermont was experiencing a “major public safety issue.” Richard Ley, a “lifelong Vermonter,” handed out leaflets citing ATF and FBI statistics that he described as “nowhere near what these [Gun Sense] people purport them to be.”

The most up-to-date FBI statistics illustrate that Vermont enjoys the second lowest rate of robberies involving firearms with 14 in 2014. Compare this figure with other states such as California which maintains some of the most restrictive gun regulations in the nation where 13,533 robberies were committed using firearms that same year.[1] Vermont also scored among the states with the lowest number of violent crimes involving guns per capita.[2]

Posted at the speakers’ podium during the Gun Sense rally was a sign reading “89% of Vermonters” – a reference to a recent poll that indicated 89 percent of Vermont residents support universal background checks. Those figures, however, have been a point of contention.

Mike Fontaine, owner of M&R Guns & Ammo in Highgate, expressed serious doubts that 89 percent of Vermonters support universal background checks. Although Fontaine is skeptical of the statistics cited by Gun Sense activists, he acknowledges “there is a problem [with illegal gun sales] but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of an approach whether it be the universal background checks or any other change in the background check that’s going to resolve the problems we have [with illegal sales].” Through his business which sells retail firearms, Fontaine is federally required to perform background checks and estimates he conducts 3,000 to 5,000 checks each year.  “I have no problem with [retail background checks]” he said, “but if they’re trying to control private sales, good luck.”

Chad Hale, owner of Back Country Sports located in St Albans, also conducts thousands of background checks for firearms sales each year, but expressed additional concerns: “I don’t think [universal background check legislation] is going to amount to making anything safe. It’s going to make good people criminals.” He went on to say, “I hate to see this coming. I’ve been all over the country and Vermont is one of the best states for owning guns. People are super responsible. There’s not a problem and I don’t see why they’re making it one.”

Some, including both leading liberal voices like Peter Galbraith as well as organizations like Gun Owners of Vermont, believe the initiative is driven by out of state special interests and not Vermont residents.

On Tuesday, August 9, Sue Minter defeated Galbraith in the primary winning the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor.

[1] https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/table-21

[2] https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/tables/table-20/table_20_murder_by_state_types_of_weapons_2013.xls