NRA too fearsome to cross? Not for this Republican governor.

Why We Wrote This

Gun safety often seems to be stuck in political quicksand. But it doesn’t have to be. This governor parted from the NRA and his own state’s traditions to take action.

Cheryl Senter/AP/File
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs a gun restrictions bill on the steps of the State House in Montpelier on April 11, 2018. Pointing to Vermont's first significant gun restrictions and to actions by other Republican governors, he says it's time for Congress to rise above ideology to seek "meaningful solutions" to gun violence.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Last year, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed the most restrictive gun measures in the history of the Green Mountain State. He cast the move as a common-sense tightening of rules on firearm sales and possession. But this was a politically risky step for a Republican in a state where voters put a premium on gun rights.

Yet Governor Scott was reelected last November, and now he says the story of GOP governors like himself working on gun control holds a message for the nation. In a September letter, he urged U.S. Senate leaders to rise above ideology to “find real and meaningful solutions.”

In seeking reelection, Mr. Scott had to fend off opposition from the National Rifle Association, which had downgraded him to a D rating. 

“It was indicative to me of the outing of a myth,” says Phil Baruth, a Democratic state senator in Vermont who supports gun control. “The myth was that the NRA was so strong here, and voters were so against any gun safety legislation, even mentioning it would get you thrown out of your seat.”

A year and a half ago, angry gun owners jeered Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott at an outdoor ceremony as he signed into law the most restrictive gun measures in the history of the Green Mountain State.

While he cast the move as common sense – tightening some rules on firearm sale and possession – the step was politically risky in a state where voters put a high premium on gun rights.

Yet Governor Scott was reelected last November and now, he says his story and that of other Republican governors working on gun control hold a message for the nation.

An epidemic of gun violence compels political leaders “to rise above the political and ideological rhetoric to find real and meaningful solutions,” Mr. Scott wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to two fellow Republicans in the U.S. Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham.

“Here in Vermont, the changes we made were not without controversy,” he wrote. “But it was the right thing to do.” 

For now, with the House of Representatives focused on an impeachment inquiry against the president, hopes for any federal gun control legislation seem futile. But Vermont’s political shift on guns has shown a possible path toward compromise on a highly partisan issue, whether for other states or for federal lawmakers down the road.

Notably, although the National Rifle Association (NRA) had downgraded Governor Scott to a D rating, he fended off a primary challenger who sought to leverage the issue, and every lawmaker who had voted for the gun safety bill won reelection in November. 

“It was indicative to me of the outing of a myth,” says Phil Baruth, a Democratic state senator in Vermont who supports gun control. “The myth was that the NRA was so strong here, and voters were so against any gun safety legislation, even mentioning it would get you thrown out of your seat.” 

For the majority of Americans who support background checks or other gun control measures, the deflation of that myth would be an encouraging sign. Today marks the two-year anniversary of the massacre at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in which 58 died, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. 

Before the impeachment drama escalated, President Donald Trump appeared to crack a door open toward federal background-check legislation on gun purchases. 

Still, if Vermont’s evolution on the issue reveals chinks in the gun lobby’s armor, it’s also a state with many avid hunters and gun owners. While Mr. Scott is widely credited for leading on gun control in 2018 at the cost of pro-gun votes at election time, he vetoed a bill passed this year that would have mandated a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, a measure designed primarily to reduce suicides. The NRA and other gun rights groups reject any delay in gun sales and lobbied hard to stop the Vermont bill. 

“There are more restrictions on gun sales now than there were two years ago. But I’m not sure the state is moving rapidly towards more restrictions,” says Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

Vermont’s history on guns 

Vermont’s Constitution goes further than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in safeguarding citizens’ right to bear arms for self-defense. The state has a strong gun and hunting tradition, along with a low crime rate, a point of pride for gun rights defenders. It’s also been the gold standard for freedom of gun ownership: no permits or licenses required. 

That’s long made gun control the third rail of politics in the state, one that cost Peter Smith, a Republican, his seat in the U.S. House in 1990. Former Representative Smith lost after his leftist opponent, endorsed by the NRA and running as an independent, outflanked him on guns by promising to oppose a firearm bill then in Congress. His name was Bernie Sanders.

In that context Governor Scott, a former stock car driver and state senator, was an unlikely agent of change. When he was elected governor in 2016, he had an A rating by the NRA, as had his predecessor, Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. It would take a national tragedy, and a local near miss, for Mr. Scott to cross the Rubicon of gun control. 

The tragedy came in Parkland, Florida, where a former student murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

The near miss came two days later, when a Vermont teenager was arrested and accused of planning a similar attack in Fair Haven.

In his letter to the U.S. senators last month, Governor Scott described how the teenager had prepared a kill list and surveyed the school and kept a diary, “The Journal of an Active Shooter.” (Studies have found that most mass shooters prepare their attacks far in advance.)

“It was not a question of if he was going to strike, it was a question of which day,” the Vermont governor wrote. 

At the time of the teen’s arrest, Mr. Scott told a news conference that he was ready to work with lawmakers on gun safety laws.

“I think everything should be on the table at this point. ... This situation led me to believe that we are not immune to what’s happening throughout the country,” he said.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Chad Hale, owner of Back Country Sports, poses behind a case of handguns in his shop on March 21, 2019, in Saint Albans, Vermont. The state has a strong gun rights tradition, and goes further than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in safeguarding citizens’ right to bear arms for self-defense.

At the State House in Montpelier, gun rights defenders geared up for a fight. 

Among them was Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs (VTFSC)  and one of its three registered lobbyists. An NRA state affiliate, the federation works with the NRA’s national legislative arm to track relevant bills and advocate for gun rights.

“We’re the boots on the ground,” says Mr. Hughes.

The NRA has its own lobbyist in Vermont who handles three other Northeastern states. This is repeated across the country, giving the NRA a voice at the state level, where most gun statutes are written.

Mr. Hughes says that his federation sets its own agenda and works with, not for, the NRA. The VTFSC doesn’t endorse political candidates. But when lawmakers began in spring 2018 to debate a package of firearm restrictions, including mandatory background checks that go beyond federal requirements, raising the minimum age for gun ownership from 18 to 21, and “red flag” orders allowing law enforcement to take guns away under defined circumstances, the campaign ignited. 

A local and national battleground

Lawmakers fielded repeated calls and emails from gun owners alerted by the NRA and VTFSC. The message was simple: Don’t take away my constitutional rights. And when public hearings were held, the “orange people” – voters wearing hunting jackets – were out in force. 

But the NRA wasn’t the only national player in town.

Since 2014, Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has stepped up spending on state and national campaigns for gun control. 

In Vermont, it spent over $100,000 in 2017-18 on lobbying, roughly equal to the expenditures of the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Federation, a gun manufacturing association.

By contrast, in Vermont’s previous legislative sessions in 2015-16, gun control groups spent roughly half the $118,000 spent by gun rights groups.

On March 30, 2018, Vermont’s Senate passed a comprehensive gun control bill. The NRA urged its members to call on Governor Scott to veto “a historic gun control agenda” by an “anti-gun Legislature.” It added, “This is your last and best chance to be heard.” 

Two weeks later, Mr. Scott signed the gun safety bill on the steps of the State House under leaden skies. Dozens of gun owners looked on, booing and calling the governor a traitor. “You lied to me, Phil!” cried one. 

Tug-and-pull forces in GOP

Predictions of political doom for Mr. Scott proved incorrect. And this year, buoyed by their success, gun control lawmakers debated ways to reduce suicide. In Vermont, as elsewhere, the majority of gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, and mass shootings, which galvanize public debate, remain rare.  

Advocates say suicide is often a temporary impulse and that restricting access to lethal weapons is a proven way, though not the only way, to help at-risk individuals. 

By July, a bill mandating a 24-hour waiting period on handgun purchases reached Mr. Scott’s desk. But he didn’t sign it, arguing that the gun safety laws passed in 2018 were sufficient to help Vermont to tackle the underlying causes of violence and suicide.

Lawmakers say Mr. Scott’s decision appeared to be a political calculation. He separately signed a progressive abortion rights bill that may cost him Republican votes and had already voiced reluctance to add more gun laws to the statute book.

Richard Sears, a Democrat and chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, says he was disappointed by the governor’s decision. “He tried not to reoffend the people who were upset at him last year,” he says. 

Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for Mr. Scott, insists this isn’t the case and that his veto was based solely on an analysis of the bill’s efficacy in reducing suicides. “He’s not making any decision going forward to win back anyone he lost by signing the bills in 2018,” she says.  

Even as Mr. Scott points to other Republican governors who have made pragmatic strides on the issue, grassroots opposition to gun control remains strong in many states. Just a month later, New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, vetoed three gun control bills that would have tightened background checks and imposed a 72-hour waiting period for gun sales. The veto came less than a week after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.