On Oct. 1, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada. 59 people were killed and over five hundred were injured. From the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd of concertgoers below. He was surrounded by twenty three guns.
The debate on gun control has been propelled by massacres like this. Many Americans advocate for universal background checks, waiting periods on gun purchases, licenses for gun ownership, bans on assault rifles and other methods of gun regulation.
Sandy Hook Promise is an organization that advocates for gun legislation and overall gun violence prevention on a federal level. It was founded by the family members of the twenty children and six adults killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
In a statement released by Sandy Hook Promise on Oct.2, the organization responded to the massacre.
“There are no words to describe the sadness and pain we feel with the news of yet another horrific mass shooting. We need policy that will help us intervene with identified at-risk individuals and ensure they are prevented from accessing or purchasing firearms until they are deemed fit. This includes sensible legislation.”
Here at home, a group called “GunSense Vermont” was formed in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. They are a coalition of gun owners and non gun owners alike who advocate for what they call “common sense” gun legislation in Vermont; universal background checks on all gun sales.
Universal background checks require that criminal and mental health records are evaluated prior to the sale of a gun to an individual. Currently, background checks are enforced in Vermont, but only for public sales. In private sales, which, according to Everytown Research, account for an estimated 40% of gun transfers in Vermont, background checks are not mandatory.
In response to the massacre in Las Vegas, GunSense Vermont released a statement calling on legislators to implement universal background checks.
“To our elected officials, we are sending this message: enough is enough. To do nothing in the face of this crisis is unconscionable.”
Two days after the massacre, Vermont’s U.S, Representative Peter Welch voiced his support for universal background checks. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Vermont senators, also support universal background checks.
Chris Pearson, Vermont state legislator from Chittenden County is also active in supporting background checks in Vermont.
“I’ve come to believe that it’s really high time for Vermont to get up to speed on some pretty basic laws around guns,” Pearson said.“It’s been hard though. Definitely a hard debate in Montpelier.”
A poll conducted by Vermont Public Radio (VPR) in 2016 showed that 84% of the responding Vermonters supported universal background checks.
However, a simple “common sense” background check might not have prevented the carnage in Las Vegas. Paddock did not have any known mental illness or criminal record. The outlawing of the “bump stock” device that aided Paddock in killing so many people is something many politicians are debating.
A bump stock is a device that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle, allowing it to fire continuously. Welch supports the banning of this item, which is currently a legal product of sale all over the country.
“What you are doing is taking a rifle and turning it into a military assault weapon,” Welch said in a statement shortly after the shooting. “So I would favor banning those.”
Even the National Rifle Association (NRA), which claims to be a group of “tireless defenders” of the rights of Americans to bear arms, is investigating regulations around the purchase of bump stocks. However, they refuse to call this proposed regulation “gun control.”
A statement made by the NRA in response to the massacre reads:
“The National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law. The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
Gun Sense Vermont has chosen not to take a stand on bump stocks.
“Gun Sense hasn’t taken a stand on any sort of ban,” Sharon Panitch, member of Gun Sense Vermont said in an interview with The Register. “That has been very deliberate. I’m not saying that that is where we’re going to continue to go.”
Directly following the shooting in Las Vegas, President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan agreed to look into the banning of devices like bump stocks.
Trump responded to the shooting on Oct.3 via Twitter.
“My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!”
Lady Gaga, a pop star in the music industry, used Twitter as an outlet for expressing her feelings about the massacre as well.
“Prayers are important, but blood is on the hands of those who have the power to legislate,” Gaga wrote on October second, tagging both Trump and Ryan. Her tweet was in response to one from Ryan saying that Las Vegas would be in the country’s prayers. Gaga added, “#guncontrol act quickly.”
An account called Gun Owners of America sent out a tweet on Oct. 13 encouraging its 121 thousand followers to resist a ban on the bump stock weapon. This followed a tweet written two days earlier that reads, “Rights do not change because tragedy strikes.”
Anna Halladay, a Burlington High School (BHS) junior, disagrees with this statement.
“I think that people are especially reluctant to change something on the bill of rights,” Halladay said, referring to the Second Amendment which states the people’s’ right to bear arms. “I think when the constitution was written it wasn’t taken into account that people could have automatic guns. I think that with the changing of circumstances, laws also have to change.”
Jackson Elder, also a junior at BHS, seconded this, commenting on his hope that legislative action would soon be taken. Elder’s family owns guns for hunting activities.
“I’m hopeful that something will happen, especially along with the bump stock, but I don’t see anything but a very stringent compromise,” Elder said.According to Pearson, the concept of even a small compromise has yet to be reached in Montpelier.
“We haven’t had a very vigorous debate,” Senator Pearson said. in regards to the conversation in Montpelier around gun regulations. “I almost wish we would get to the point of getting pushback. As the tragedies rack up, it will be interesting to see if our colleagues begin to soften their stance and allow our bills to move forward.”
Gun Owners of Vermont states that its organization is not interested in any sort of compromise when it comes to guns.
“We’ve been working successfully for firearms owners and we’ve won numerous big battles. Don’t look to us to compromise!” Reads a statement on the Gun Owners of Vermont website.
BHS Driver’s Education teacher Robert Hill, a gun owner, recognizes that the Second Amendment causes a lot of controversy.
Hill agrees with regulation on assault weapons, but adds that many of his fellow gun owners are worried that once one law regarding guns is implemented, others will continue to follow until citizens are stripped completely of their right to bear arms, resembling a domino effect.
“We have a culture in Vermont that is very steeped in hunting and sportsman activities,” Pearson said. “[It’s] part of our tradition. [People] want to be secluded, [want to] take care of themselves.”
Pearson says that this tradition needs to be respected. He also acknowledged that many Vermonters’ need for guns varies on their geography.
“Chittenden county is really different from a lot of the state,” Pearson said. “Most of Vermont is pretty rural and guns are much more a part of life in small towns in the middle of nowhere in Vermont.”
Halladay, a Burlington resident, saw that her location affected the presence of guns in her life.
“I live in a very safe neighborhood. I don’t know anyone who has a gun,” Halladay said. “It plays no role in my life, but it does elsewhere and I know that,”Halladay said.
“If someone was breaking into [your] house [in Chittenden County], the police would be here within minutes,” Pearson said. “If you live way up in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road, that is not your reality.”
However, the presence of guns in Vermont does not just affect the lives of Vermonters.
Pearson said that Vermont is often blamed for violent crimes that occur in neighboring states, notably in Boston and New York.
During her political campaign, Hillary Clinton also pointed a finger at Vermont for being responsible for many gun deaths in New York.
“Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state,” Clinton said in 2015. “And the state that has the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont.”
Although this statement is true, according to CNN, only 55 guns out of 4585 guns in New York came from Vermont in 2015 in contrast to the much larger amounts that came from other states. Virginia contributes 395 guns out of 4585 in New York.
“I actually think the smarter solution is a federal solution so you don’t have patchwork all over the country,” Pearson said in response to the pressure on the Vermont Senate to take action on gun legislation.
Kyra Gillespie, senior at BHS who is currently enrolled in Community College of Vermont, was astonished by the ease of obtaining a gun in her home state, although she does not actually plan to purchase a gun.
“So I could go buy a gun right now. I’m eighteen. So I could go to Walmart… that is wild!”Gillespie said.
The process of attaining a gun varies in other states.
A few states have implemented laws that require licenses for gun ownership and carrying, such as Massachusetts. 2015 data collected by the Center For Disease Control (CDC) shows that Massachusetts has a much lower rate of gun deaths than Vermont. In Vermont, about 9.6 per 100,000 citizens were killed by a gun in 2015. In Massachusetts, 3.0 of every 100,000 citizens were killed by a gun. Vermont does not require licenses for gun ownership.
Massachusetts also requires a Firearms Identification card (FID) upon gun purchase. An application is required to obtain an FID, which includes a four page form filled out by someone who wishes to purchase a gun. The application is reviewed by a local police department.
Massachusetts has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country,followed by Hawaii, New York, and Rhode Island. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York City require a permit to purchase and own a gun. In New York state (outside of New York City), permits are required for handguns but not for shotguns and rifles. Rhode Island does not require permits for gun purchase, but does require an application, a safety course, and a seven day waiting period prior to someone obtaining a gun.
“You don’t immediately need a gun if you are using it for something other than hurting somebody,” Elder said regarding waiting periods.
On the other side of the scale, Alaska lead the United States with the highest rate of gun deaths in 2015; 23.4 per 100,000 people. Other states with similar rates include Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Wyoming. All of these states do not require permits to purchase guns. Mississippi and Alabama require permits to carry handguns in public places. Vermont does not.
“In the United States, our likelihood of being a victim of gun violence is twenty five times higher than it is in any other developed country,” Panitch of Gun Sense Vermont said. “To me, that feels like a public health crisis.”
This public health crisis has yet to be comprehensively studied by the CDC, a foundation created and funded by the United States Congress.
“This [gun violence] is happening, and the issue isn’t being addressed, and that’s just really scary,” Janizer Diaz-Cartagena, a BHS junior, said. “[Legislators] just haven’t done anything.”
French teacher Catherine Tetu said that these shootings could happen anywhere.
“There’s always a possibility,” Tetu said. “We live in a world that is unpredictable.”
Pearson says that it’s time for people to speak up to change this epidemic of ongoing gun violence, and that grassroots support for gun legislation will pressure legislators to take action.
Gun Sense Vermont continues to be an active force of grassroots support.
“I don’t think we’re going to stop [gun violence], but I think we can decrease it,” Panitch said. “It’s incumbent on all of us to take that on.”
Originally published in print on November 3, 2017