Vermont Can Make a Difference on Mass Shootings

Since the national opinion writers have thoroughly covered the President’s role in stoking the violence we experienced this weekend we can agree that the next election offers us all the opportunity to repudiate his “thoughts and prayers” response to the violence he has encouraged. But there are two elements that ignite such violence and only one is our national leader. America’s saturation with 270 million guns is the other.

Vermont must look to its own role in the carnage and do better. We have among the most lax gun laws in the country. We also have one of the lowest per capita homicide rates in the country, but the opposite is true of our suicide rate. For decades Vermont homicides occurred largely within families. Soured drug transactions accelerated the rate somewhat. A good year would be twelve murders, a bad year, twenty. Chicago sees that on a weekend. Clearly, our lax gun laws are not affecting our crime rate, as gun rights proponents correctly point out.

But Vermont is not an island. The Gilroy Festival shooter bought his gun in nearby Nevada, as its sale was banned in California. In our national carnage, no state is an island. A drug dealer delivering $10,000 worth of fentanyl to Rutland can double his earnings by buying handguns here cheaply and easily and going back to sell them in New York City.

In fairness, we have tightened our gun laws somewhat. Gun ownership transfer laws are more restrictive. Sales to minors now require completion of hunter safety course training. New sales of large-capacity ammunition feeding devices and bump stocks, which turn a semiautomatic effectively into an automatic, are prohibited.

To imbue the policy debate with any meaning, I believe it’s more realistic, however, to understand a gun as a tool rather than an abstract right. Guns are used for killing animals or humans. Other than target practice for sport, they serve no other purpose. The deterrent myth for open-carry defies all scientific data and law enforcement agencies indicate that the presence of a gun usually gins up violence rather than deterring it.

I was raised with guns and took the NRA riflery courses when I was eight. My parents gave me a Winchester .22 long rifle when I was ten, after I had earned the first four NRA medals: Marksman, Pro-marksman, Marksman 1st Class, and Sharpshooter Bar 1. We still have hunting weapons in our home today. Our property is the only land in our neighborhood not posted. Even though my wife and I are not hunters, we welcome hunters of all kinds and one local deer hunter has a deer-stand in our woods. Man has so disturbed the balance of nature that active game management through controlled hunting has become an imperative.

But guns are also for killing people. A deer rifle can kill a person as easily as a handgun, but not as easily as an AR15, a military weapon designed to kill as many people as possible in the least amount of time.

Imagine if the Gilroy, El Paso, or Dayton shooters had a 30.06 deer rifle. They would have killed far fewer people before being killed or apprehended. Put simply, there is no reason for non-law enforcement or non-military American citizens to be allowed to own or carry automatic or military weapons. Any hunter committed to the skill and sport of the hunt is going to rely on his or her acumen, not automation, to get their game.

We’re a laughing-stock internationally. New Zealand has a strong hunting culture and within days of their white nationalist rampage, the New Zealand parliament was implementing new laws prohibiting the sale of assault weapons. Have we become so complacent about the weekly tragedies we see that we can’t take action to control the sales and ownership of weapons designed for military use? Is our obsession with gun ownership so absolute that we’ve come to accept the weekly slaughter of our citizens?

Just before he died, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the Heller Decision (D.C. v. Heller – 2008) was the biggest mistake the Supreme Court made during his tenure. The Heller decision struck down sensible provisions in the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 as unconstitutional. That law banned citizens from owning handguns, automatic firearms, or high-capacity semi-automatic firearms as well as prohibiting possession of unregistered firearms.

If we Vermonters can think more clearly about our role as part of a federalist system and a global marketplace, we might think beyond our commercial and political interests and put in place an absolute ban on the sales of assault weapons just as other concerned states have. We would also implement background checks and purchasing delays to ensure that would-be killers and people considering suicide do not get the opportunity to act on their impulses and have time to consider the consequences or seek help.

Ironies abound in all this. The lion’s share of mass shootings are domestic white nationalist terrorists as the FBI has declared, not hordes of foreigners crossing our boarders as our President insists. Data show that our cities are becoming safer than our suburbs and rural areas. The NRA, the principal lobbying organization of the arms industry is collapsing in financial and governance disarray, as its once core membership of sportsman and hunters abandon it.

Hunters will and should hunt. Homicidal racists should be denied access to weapons, and suicides should be deterred. Let’s forget the thoughts, prayers, and bouquets and end the carnage. And we can start here at home.

VT Digger Column August 8, 2019