MONTPELIER, Vt. — If the irate crowd that turned out Wednesday to watch the signing of controversial gun control legislation at the Vermont Statehouse is any indication, Gov. Phil Scott may face an uphill battle towards re-election this November.
The three bills the governor signed after giving a lengthy speech were prized gun-control targets that for years were unthinkable in Vermont, one of the safest pro-gun states in the nation.
The most controversial legislation, S.55, imposes background checks on private gun sales, sets a 10-round magazine limit for rifles and 15 rounds for pistols, bans bump stocks, and raises the firearms purchase age to 21.
Starting at 2 p.m., following a loud round of chants and boos, Scott opened his speech by explaining the chain of events that led to him break his campaign promise of not enacting new gun laws.
“On February 16, I was in my office preparing for the day ahead when everything changed. That morning, I was handed a document containing charges against an 18-year-old outlining his detailed plan to carry out a school shooting here in Vermont,” he said, referring to the foiled school shooting in Fair Haven by a disturbed teenager.
That event occurred two days after a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., school left 17 innocent people dead.
“As I read the 13-page affidavit, I was alarmed to learn just how close we came to the same tragic fate the people of Parkland faced,” Scott added.
Prior to mid-February, the governor had pledged not to sign any bill that violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution, which assert the right to bear arms.
Yet as Scott signed the sweeping gun control legislation in front of the Statehouse, he said he was keeping his promises.
“I want to be absolutely clear: I believe these measures will make a difference, and I firmly believe each and every one of them is consistent with both the United States and Vermont constitutions.
“I took an oath to uphold those documents — an oath I take very seriously. If I thought anything in this legislation limited Vermonters’ rights, I would not sign it.”
At a couple of points during his speech, Scott had to pause as jeers grew so loud and intense that the governor’s words were barely audible from within the crowd, even over the loudspeaker system.
Among those unhappy with the governor was Cody Goebel, of Island Pond, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
“Half of his speech was contradictory — he talks about how both sides aren’t communicating, but we’ve come and tried to talk about how there could be better laws to actually help school safety,” Goebel said, alluding to the bills’ failure to address active shooter situations.
Ted Tedesco, a retired Marine Corps major from Woodbury, said he’s done supporting Scott.
“I will not vote again for Scott at any time for anything in the future,” he said. “We are fed up with politicians saying one thing and doing another.”
Mark Young, of Lyndonville, carried a sign pointing out the irony that armed guards were protecting the governor and lawmakers on the steps for this signing. He also had a cardboard knife sticking out of his back, expressing his sense of betrayal.
“I’ll never support Phil Scott again,” he said.
Multiple people at the signing indicated they were considering running for office as a result of the day’s events.
Christopher Covey, of Williamstown, who organized a gun rally in South Burlington over the weekend, said he will seek office.
“For the Orange-1 seat in the House I’ll be running as a Republican, and I’m hoping to get on the ballot within the next two weeks,” he said.
Peter Briggs, of Addison County, said he is running for a seat in the Senate.
“[Scott] broke his promises big time, because I heard him say ‘no new gun laws.’ He emphatically said that every time campaigning,” Briggs said.
Among those in support of the governor was Patty Meriam, of Barre.
“I came to support the Republican governor for having the courage to sign and support common-sense gun laws,” she said. “I think Phil Scott is a very reasonable man and he’s worked well with the Democratic legislature, and I think we need more of that in this government. So I came out to thank him for that.”
She suggested she would support additional legislation on top of what was signed Wednesday.
“Data shows that stronger safety laws save lives. And so, those laws do that,” she said. “The background checks particularly are valuable. I am in support of registering, licensing and insuring guns to ensure public safety.”
Another person in the crowd who supported Scott was Jud Lawrie from Essex Junction.
“I’ve been working on common-sense gun legislation since 2013,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard slog, so I’m delighted to be here to watch the governor sign some meaningful legislation.”
On which of these bills will make the biggest impact towards preventing a mass shooting, Lawrie said, “It’s hard to tie them to mass shootings. We’re not at the heart of that problem yet. Those tend to be the big weapons — the AR-15s and so forth. But through background checks, if you can prevent a few people from acquiring these weapons, I think maybe [shootings might be prevented].”
At the end of his speech, Scott acknowledged that his actions will cost him political support.
“I recognize how hard it is for some to understand my change of heart on our gun laws, let alone come to the same conclusions I’ve reached, and that many who voted for me are disappointed and angry,” he said.
“I understand I may lose support over the decision to sign these bills today. Those are consequences I’m prepared to live with.”