MIDDLEBURY — Gun violence in Vermont has largely been confined to suicides, but concerns linger about the ease with which guns can be obtained in Vermont and then potentially circulated to high-crime areas of other states.
Those were among the views shared by panelists and participants at a Monday forum titled “Our Guns, Our Towns, Our Questions,” sponsored by the Middlebury Area Clergy Association and hosted by the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (CVUUS). The panel, moderated by Vermont Public Radio host Jane Lindholm, featured Justin Busby, a senior trooper with the Vermont State Police; Greg Boglioli, manager of Vermont Field Sports; Sally Kerschner, a board member of the Vermont Public Health Association; and Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department Commissioner Patrick Berry.
The Rev. Barnaby Feder, pastor of CVUUS, explained that the forum was not intended to be a debate about the pros and cons of gun control, but rather an opportunity for people to educate themselves about how firearms are currently regulated and the extent to which they are affecting peoples’ lives.
“The clergy have been talking amongst themselves about this issue and how a lot of people have had trouble talking about it in a safe setting, because they encounter so many people with many strong opinions and made-up minds,” Feder said. “We wanted to create a forum that was question-oriented, where we could hear some experts and get some information they might not have.”
Participants in Monday’s forum not only talked about firearms, they got to see some. Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley displayed, and explained the characteristics of, several weapons — ranging from a deer hunting rifle to an M-16 semi-automatic assault weapon used by police and the military. He identified the pump-action shotgun as being, in his opinion, the most lethal of the weapons on display at the forum, because of its ability to spray multiple pellets covering a wide field.
Hanley, who has 39 years in law enforcement, said he feels it’s important that people educate themselves about weapons and their capability. He said there has been some misinformation about firearms in the media in wake of recent mass shootings, such as the one that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That misinformation, he said, has included misrepresentations of a firearm magazine versus a “clip,” and the extent to which semi-automatic weapons can spit out rounds. For example, he said while some assault rifles are rated to shoot 600 bullets per minute, that could never happen, as the shooter would have to switch magazines (a maximum of 30 bullets per magazine) and the barrel of the weapon would become over-heated.
“I sit and cringe sometimes when I hear people talk about firearms,” Hanley said. “If you are going to make a decision about something, make an educated decision — know what you’re talking about.”
With that in mind, the panelists discussed such things as the latest firearm purchasing trends; what a customer must do to legally buy a gun; the extent to which guns are used in the commission of crimes in Vermont; and the rather unique gun culture that has been present in the state of Vermont for generations.
Busby, who works out of the New Haven barracks, said he seldom sees guns used in the commission of a crime. He primarily sees hunting rifles in his day-to-day activities. He noted that sadly, the cases he investigates that involve shootings are most often suicides.
“I make a lot of traffic stops and I do encounter handguns, but the people who own the handguns are law-abiding citizens,” Busby said. “I am a gun guy, as far as I take interest in that, so I like to see them have pride in the weapon that they have — they’ll show me, safely of course.”
Some of the approximately 100 attendees at Monday’s forum voiced concern about the relative ease with which people can buy guns. Per requirements of the Brady Bill, Boglioli described a process through which people buying firearms at a gun shop in Vermont must fill out a 4473 form devised by the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Form 4473 is a federally mandated “firearms transaction record” through which a purchaser must give basic biographical information as well as disclose whether they are a convicted felon or drug user, and cite other reasons why they might be disqualified from owning a gun. The dealer calls that information in to federal officials who can give the consent to proceed with the sale; request a delay in the transaction; or deny the sale.
“(Federal authorities) have three days to conduct a background check and tell us whether to proceed with the sale or not,” Boglioli said.
“Any time you answer ‘yes’ to anything other than ‘Are you a resident of the state’ or ‘Are you purchasing the gun for yourself?’ you can’t go through with the background check,” Boglioli said.
Background checks result in the denial of only four to eight firearm transactions at Vermont Field Sports each year, according to Boglioli. Around one in 20 transactions at the store is initially delayed, but almost always goes through, he added. A primary example of a delay, Boglioli said, is when a recent transplant to Vermont comes in to buy a gun.
He explained the gun dealer keeps completed 4473 forms on file, where they can be accessed, if necessary, by law enforcement.
Officials explained the 4473 form is designed, among other things, to prevent “straw purchases” — cases in which a person in good standing buys a gun for the purpose of reselling it, for a profit, to someone with whom they have no connection. But some participants at the forum expressed concern that the promises made by the buyer through the 4473 form could be skirted, through firearm purchases made amongst consenting parties. And they noted it is OK for a person to sell a recently bought firearm to a friend or relative shortly after the purchase, with no repercussions.
One audience member noted the U.S. homicide rate is 50 times greater than that of Japan, where there are stricter gun laws.
“This is something that we as a society are failing to acknowledge,” he said.
“No matter how many laws you have, people can always outsmart it,” Busby conceded.
When some forum attendees suggested a national firearm registry, Busby theorized that people would consider such a proposal an “invasion of privacy.”
Lindholm asked Boglioli what the best selling guns at his shop are these days.
“The trend now is handguns, followed by shotguns and hunting rifles, and the least we sell is what you would call military-style weapons,” he replied.
Boglioli added that many people who are buying the assault-style rifles don’t seem to be firing them a lot and are instead “accessorizing” them with add-on features, like an adult “Tinker Toy.” He said there was an initial spike in assault rifle purchases after the Newtown shootings and there continues to be somewhat of a run on ammunition. While there used to be stacks of 20 packs of ammo on the store shelves, now there are stacks of only five or six packs, according to Boglioli.
“They are convinced there isn’t going to be any (ammo) when they want it, so they’re just buying all they can buy now,” Boglioli said.
The recent ammo shortage has had an impact on police, according to Busby.
“We get our ammo from the same manufacturers and it’s come to the point where we have to limit our professional qualifications and training because we don’t have the ammo left,” Busby said.
Many people have been purchasing guns these days as an investment, according to Busby. A rifle they buy today for $1,400 could triple in value in several years, he said.
A VERMONT TRADITION
Berry, whose office deals with hunters on a routine basis, noted the manner in which Vermonters have long embraced firearms as a tool, passed on to younger generations for hunting, target shooting and not for criminal activities.
“Vermont has the (second) highest participation rate in the country for all forms of wildlife-based recreation behind Alaska,” Berry said. “There is a higher percentage of Vermonters that hunt, fish, trap and engage in wildlife viewing, so it is an incredibly important part of the culture. In a lot of cases, it’s part of the family tradition; it brings families together.
“There is a culture here that is about hunting when it comes to guns, and I think at times that is a disconnect with what people are seeing (with guns) nationally,” he added. “What happens here doesn’t necessarily apply to the national gun debate.”
Berry noted that in 2012, there were no shooting accidents in the state of Vermont, further evidence, he said, that hunters seem to respect their weapons and are handling them responsibly.
“For many people, (a gun) is a tool, not a toy,” Berry said. “It is not glorified. It is not something that is mysterious or cool.”
Berry added that his kids have, since they were little, helped him clean his guns.
“It has completely demystified it for them,” he said. “They really don’t care.”
Vermont’s requirement of a hunter education course has also promoted good gun safety and responsibility, according to Berry.
He added Vermonters have been able to learn to shoot safely at one of more than 30 shooting ranges in the state. He lamented the fact that there are currently no legal shooting ranges in Addison County.
“We have been looking at trying to develop a shooting range on our own property in the town of Addison, away from houses,” Berry said. “We have to have a way to teach Vermonters, especially kids, safe shooting, and (ranges) are the best way to do it.”
But as non-violent as the gun culture has historically been in Vermont, there have been tragedies. Kerschner noted that after suicides, domestic violence is the second most likely case in which a firearm is misused in this state.
Kerschner pointed to several gun-control bills introduced in the state Legislature this year. Among them are:
• H.121, which would, among other things, prohibit the manufacture, possession or transfer of “large capacity ammunition feeding devices”; require national instant background checks on people who buy firearms at gun shows; and require people to take courses in carrying a concealed weapon before they are allowed to do so.
• H.335, which would require a 48-hour waiting period for all gun sales by firearms dealers; and repeal the prohibition on sale or use of gun silencers.
Kerschner said the chief sponsor of H.335, Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, sees the 48-hour waiting period as being potentially helpful to prevent suicides.
“Especially with youth, suicides are often an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment type of act,” Kerschner said.
She reported that recent advances in medication have allowed people with mental illness to function more safely and productively in society. She added people should not jump to the conclusion that those living with mental illness might be more prone to engage in acts of violence. But she acknowledged that more research needs to be done on the potential dangers posed by people who suffer with mental illness in isolation — such as Adam Lanza, the accused Newtown shooter.
Kerschner also pointed to national statistics indicating a person is more likely to be unintentionally injured or killed by a gun.
“It’s not rare that a child playing with a gun is killed, or kills a sibling with the gun,” Kerschner said.
With a recent spate of home break-ins in northern Addison County, some participants at Monday’s forum asked what is the best firearm for use in home defense. Hanley said a handgun, while Boglioli recommended a shotgun.
“It is simple to use,” Boglioli said.
Berry said while he possesses several firearms, his mode of self-defense for a home invasion would be “to call 911 and get my family the hell out of my house.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]