Vermont not only holds a special place in the hearts of many gun owners thanks to its longtime status as a Constitutional Carry state, but because both Republicans and Democrats alike have traditionally placed great importance on respecting the right to keep and bear arms. But as we discuss on today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co, those days are over and Democrats have big plans for the state’s gun laws in 2023, including the repeal of a very important protection for those Second Amendment rights.
Localities in Vermont have been forbidden for well over a century from imposing their own local anti-gun ordinances thanks to a 1903 state Supreme Court decision that declared an ordinance in Rutland barring the carrying of firearms without prior approval of the chief of police to be “inconsistent with and repugnant to the Constitution of this state.”
By the late 1980s, however, gun control groups and progressive activists in the state were agitating to put local restrictions in place regardless of what the state Supreme Court had to say. As John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute recently detailed, pro-Second Amendment forces responded with a piece of legislation known as the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights.
The act was passed because gun control organizations had shown interest in passing various local gun control measures. Spurred on by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens’ Clubs and Gun Owners of Vermont, the Legislature decisively rejected that interest. The bill passed the House 125-8 and the Senate on a voice vote. Democratic Gov. Madeleine Kunin signed it. Democratic Lt. Gov. Howard Dean boasted that “I got it passed.”
Yes kids, there was once a time when a Democrat like Howard Dean saw the value in protecting the right to keep and bear arms, even if it was largely for his own political benefit. How far we’ve come (or fallen) since then.
Since 1988, Burlington and Montpelier voters have proposed to create their own gun control ordinances. Because of the Dillon Rule, city charter changes must be approved by the General Assembly. All attempts to bypass the law proscribing local gun control measures have been pigeonholed.
The renewed interest in enacting local gun control measures has shifted from getting city charter exemptions to town-by-town action, notably in Woodstock. Michael Bloomberg-funded Gun Sense Vermont is launching a campaign to repeal the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights in the name of local implementation of “meaningful steps to prevent gun violence.” Perhaps by licensing or prohibiting all guns in the town?
The major reason why Gun Sense thinks this is their year is the election of Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Burlington) as Senate President pro tempore. Baruth, a novelist and English professor at University of Vermont, has long been an earnest advocate of gun control measures. He sponsored four such bills in the 2019-20 Legislature, where they were not considered. He has publicly announced that repeal of the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights will be considered in the coming session.
Other towns are joining in the push to repeal the Sportman’s Bill of Rights, including Burlington, where the city council this week approved a resolution not only demanding repeal but directing local officials to investigate how they might be able to craft new “gun-free zones” for the city.
Despite Vermont’s progressive politics, I don’t think that repeal is a sure thing. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has been generally supportive of Second Amendment issues, and he handily won re-election last month with more than 70% of the vote. Scott hasn’t officially said whether he’d veto a repeal of the Sportsman’s Bill of Rights, but given that he did veto a far more modest measure earlier this year, I’d say the odds of him backing the repeal are pretty slim.
On paper, Democrats have the numbers needed to override any veto by Scott. With a supermajority in both chambers anti-gun politicians can afford to (and probably will) lose a few votes, though whether or not enough Democrats peel away from party leadership to defeat the repeal effort remains to be seen. This promises to be one of the most contentious issues in the state in 2023, and one that we’ll be covering closely in the weeks ahead.