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December 20, 2012

Where Do Your Lawmakers Stand on Gun Rights?

DSC04514While reporting a column on Vermont's gun politics earlier this week, I asked Gov. Peter Shumlin's campaign manager, Alex MacLean, for a copy of the National Rifle Association questionnaire he filled out this fall while seeking the group's endorsement.

Apparently, MacLean didn't keep one.

But given Shumlin's 92 percent rating by the group, it ain't hard to figure out how the pro-gun gov filled it out.

Yesterday, we got our hands on a blank copy of the 25-question survey distributed to Vermont state lawmakers in July (it's posted below). The comprehensive questionnaire touches on everything from safety locks to the expired assault weapons ban to the so-called "gun show loophole." The phrasing of several of the questions is, shall we say, loaded.

Here's an example:

10. In 1994, Congress imposed a ten-year ban on the manufacture, for sale to private individuals, of various semi-automatic firearms it termed "assault weapons," and of ammunition magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition, which primarily affected handguns designed for self-defense. Congress' subsequent study of the ban, as well as state and local law enforcement agency reports, showed that contrary to the ban's supporters' claims, the guns and magazines had never been used in more than about 1-2% of violent crime. Since the ban expired in 2004, the numbers of these firearms and magazines owned have risen to all-time highs and violent crime has fallen to a 35-year low. Would you support state legislation restricting the possession, ownership, purchase, sale, and/or transfer of semi-automatic firearms and/or limits on the capacity of magazines designed for self-defense?

So how did your lawmakers answer?

Votesmart.org has a tally of the NRA's 2012 ratings in Vermont. You can check it out here (but you gotta scroll down quite a bit to find Vermont).

Here's how a few notable pols — including the chairmen of the Vermont House and Senate Judiciary committees, where any gun legislation would likely be heard — stacked up in 2012:

  • Gov. Peter Shumlin — 92 percent
  • Lt. Gov. Phil Scott — 92 percent
  • Atty. Gen. Bill Sorrell — 42 percent
  • House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) — 92 percent
  • Senate President Pro TemJohn Campbell (D-Windsor) — 67 percent
  • House Majority Leader-elect Willem Jewett (D-Ripton) — 92 percent
  • House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) — 67 percent
  • Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears (D-Bennington) — 100 percent
  • U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — 8 percent
  • U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — 42 percent

With these last two, it should be noted that candidates for federal office are judged based on different criteria than state lawmakers. Spokesmen for Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy (who was last up for election in 2010) said that the two have not recently filled out NRA questionnaires. A spokesman for Sanders would not say whether Vermont's junior senator has. (Updated: After this post was published, Sanders' spokesman said Sanders didn't fill out an NRA survey during the 2012 election either.)

Since my column went to press Tuesday, two members of the delegation have broken their silence on whether their views on gun rights have shifted since last week's deadly shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Welch and Sanders both indicated to Vermont Public Radio's Bob Kinzel Tuesday evening that they are open to changes in the nation's gun laws.

That's a big shift for the two, who just four months ago — in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado — told the Addison Independent's John Flowers they believed gun laws are best left to the states. Here's what the federal delegation said at the time:

Welch:

“A national consensus on the best approach to gun violence in America has been elusive at best. In Vermont, we have a proud tradition of responsible gun ownership and a low incidence of gun-related violence. I believe Vermonters should determine the policies in this area, not Congress. But we ought to, as a nation, be able to find a way to keep assault weapons out of the hands of unstable individuals.”

Sanders:

“In my view, decisions about gun control should be made as close to home as possible — at the state level. If the Vermont Legislature and the governor want to go forward with gun control they have the opportunity to do that, though I’m not aware that there is any great inclination in Vermont to do so. If the state of Colorado, where a terrible tragedy has taken place, wanted to go forward on gun control, they also have the right to do that.”

Leahy:

“There are no simple solutions to preventing tragedies like this. As a former prosecutor, I know that our state and local law enforcement officials do their very best to ensure the public’s safety. As a Vermonter and supporter of the Second Amendment, I recognize, as the Supreme Court did, that sensible rules can coexist with our constitutional rights. States and localities know what works best in their communities, and I believe in protecting the freedoms of each state to enact their own firearms laws. There are many firearms laws on the books at the local, state and federal levels, and every reasonable effort should be made to enforce existing laws as sensibly and effectively as possible. For example in recent years there was a good-faith, bipartisan effort to improve the availability of mental health records in the existing firearms background check system. More can also be done to help empower families and communities to identify those who are suffering, often silently, from mental illness.”

Seven Days has made repeated requests to interview Leahy, Sanders, Welch and Shumlin on the matter since Monday, but none of the four have been willing.

Leahy is slated to appear Friday at noon on VPR's Vermont Edition, where he's expected to address Congress' response to the Newtown massacre.

Here's a copy of the NRA's Vermont legislator questionnaire:

NRA's 2012 Vermont Endorsement Survey

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

Photo of Shumlin by Paul Heintz.

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