By Christine Muschi
MONTPELIER, Vt. (Reuters) – Vermont, a mostly rural New England state with a passion for hunting, has a reputation as a pro-gun stronghold, but the rising specter of school gun violence has shaken that longstanding political tradition.
The state is one of two dozen where efforts to curb gun violence have gained new momentum since the Feb. 14 shooting rampage that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gun control advocates say.
Governor Phil Scott, reacting to the Florida massacre, and the arrest days later of a teenager accused of threatening a similar attack in Vermont, said he was “jolted” into a new willingness to consider limiting access to guns “by those who shouldn’t have them.”
He has since embraced bills that would raise the legal age for all firearms purchases to 21, bolster background checks and make it easier for police to seize weapons from people deemed to pose an “extreme risk” of violence.
It was a remarkable turnabout for a Republican governor with a 93 percent approval rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun rights advocacy group in an otherwise politically liberal state with some of America’s most permissive gun laws.
Gun control advocates say the turnaround in Vermont and other states has been propelled in part by the groundswell of student-led lobbying efforts and protests calling for tighter firearms restrictions.
Nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether the flurry of gun-safety measures in statehouses will translate into new laws.
Politicians in many states remain adamantly opposed to any limits on gun sales. And legislative control held by the NRA-aligned Republican Party in 32 states clouds prospects for passing such measures.
“You still have an uphill battle in terms of a comprehensive approach to fix this problem in many states,” said Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Notably, proposals to ban assault-style weapons have continued to languish.
Even so, Brown said she would be surprised if more than a few states failed to at least seriously consider some version of the so-called “extreme risk” legislation enacted in Florida earlier this month and now pending in Vermont.
Such measures, allowing police to petition a court to seize firearms of someone judged a danger to themselves or others, has garnered considerable bipartisan support, even in some states traditionally regarded as NRA strongholds, Brown said.
The changing climate at the state level, despite U.S. congressional paralysis on the issue, in part reflects a shift in growing public support for new gun restrictions.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month found that the proportion of adults who want to mandatory background checks on prospective buyers at gun shows and private sales climbed to 87 percent, up from 82 percent in a similar poll in March 2013.
‘GUNSHINE STATE’ SETS EXAMPLE
Gun control advocates hope some states will be more inclined to follow the example of Florida, whose firearms-friendly history earned it the label of “Gunshine State.”
Spurred by an extraordinary lobbying campaign from survivors of the Parkland massacre, Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature swiftly passed a bill signed into law by another Republican with strong NRA credentials – Governor Rick Scott.
Key provisions resemble measures that have gained traction in Vermont and other states.
They include the extreme-risk proposals; raising the legal minimum age to buy rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21 (as federal law already requires for purchasing handguns); and expanded background checks.
Extreme-risk bills are pending in about 24 states, five of them – Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah – where they were introduced after Parkland, Brown said.
About half a dozen states are considering background check bills, some to close loopholes for sales at gun shows, and 11 states have bills pending to ban “bump stocks,” which enable semiautomatic weapons to be fired virtually as automatic machine-guns, Brown said.
Several states have taken a different tack, considering legislation to allow more guns in classrooms – an idea endorsed by the NRA and U.S. President Donald Trump.
A majority of Americans, including Republicans, Democrats and gun owners want stricter laws on gun ownership and armed guards in schools, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll taken in early March. [nL8N1R35PZ]
Florida’s new gun law allows some school personnel to carry guns where individual school districts permit it but excludes most teachers from being armed.
At least six more states are weighing similar measures – Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Vermont, renowned for its maple syrup, covered bridges and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, the outcome of gun legislation remains uncertain, even though Democrats control both legislative bodies, with a smattering of independent and Progressive Party lawmakers.
“The governor’s shift on this position changed the landscape,” Evan Hughes, vice president of the NRA-affiliated Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, told Reuters. “And I’m certain that he’s hearing from our community that they’re displeased.”
(Reporting by Christine Muschi; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool)