Montpelier — Gov. Phil Scott hadn’t even reached the podium set up on the Statehouse steps on Wednesday before he heard past supporters greet him with shouts of “traitor” and former opponents cheering “thank you.”
The two camps were split: one on the left, the other on the right and the Republican governor standing square in the middle, looking out at them as he marked the signing of three bills making historic changes to gun laws in Vermont.
As detractors jeered, the governor said he realized the political consequences of his signature.
“Many who voted for me are disappointed and angry. I understand I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills today, but those are consequences I’m prepared to live with,” he said.
“Today, we choose action over inaction, doing something over doing nothing, knowing there will always be more work to do, but today we chose to try,” Scott said.
Many of the backers of the legislation wore the green and white stickers of Gun Sense Vermont, an organization that has been pushing for reforms to the state’s gun laws. Most of the detractors dressed in blaze-orange clothing, from hats to vests to jackets. Members of both sides carried signs expressing either their appreciation or frustration toward the governor.
Scott remained calm throughout his address, his voice rising at times to be heard over the near-constant heckling from some of the most vocal protesters. Their refrains included, “You lied to us, Phil,” and “You’re breaking your promise.”
About midway through his speech, as the shouts from the protesters continued, the governor talked about the “erosion of civility” in society, which he said is not limited to one issue or one group.
“We must all reflect how we treat one another and the example that we’re setting for our kids,” he said. “Because I believe our violence issue is fueled by our anger issue.”
“Today in American too many of our fellow citizens on both sides of every issue, not just on guns, have given up on listening, deciding to no longer consider other opinions, viewpoints or perspectives,” he added.
That growing divide, the governor said, “is a dark place where the embers of hate and bigotry and blame can grow. These things are what’s hurting our nation.”
That sentiment didn’t silence all the protesters in the crowd, as some continued yelling out at the governor as he spoke.
Scott said he was “jolted” two months ago by details released in court records in the case of an 18-year-old Poultney, Vt., man accused in a foiled school shooting plot.
During a news conference the week of that arrest, he said “everything’s on the table” when it came to gun restrictions that he believed would protect children and the public at large against mass shootings.
That represented a shift from the governor’s previous position.
During the 2016 election and the 2017 legislative session, Scott showed no interest in making changes to the state’s gun laws.
The governor’s about-face set off calls of betrayal from gun rights groups who supported him when he was elected to his first term in office.
Scott reiterated that reasoning behind his position shift as he spoke on Wednesday.
Early in the legislative debate, Scott said he was open to even the most controversial provision in the bill — a ban on high-capacity magazines. His position opened the way for the landmark legislation to move swiftly through the Statehouse.
Provisions of S.55 include:
Expands background checks to private sales. The bill requires the seller and buyer to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer to conduct that check, and exchanges between family members also are exempt.
Raises the age to purchase a firearm to 21, with exceptions for law enforcement and military personnel as well as those under 21 who complete a hunter’s safety course.
Limits magazine size for handguns to 15 rounds and 10 for rifles. Magazines over those limits that people already possess are “grandfathered,” or exempt from the legislation.
Bans bump stocks, devices that speed up the firing ability of a gun.
“I want to be absolutely clear,” Scott said in his speech on Wednesday. “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.”
He added that he understood that there was more work ahead, including addressing issues such as expanding access to mental health treatment and addressing the ongoing opioid crisis.
The shouting from those opposed to legislation did not abate as House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, and Senate President Pro Tem Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, took to the podium.
Jeers seemed louder for the House leaders than those in the Senate.
Johnson thanked all lawmakers for their work on the bills, but singled out two who stood to her right as she spoke, Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, and House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.
“The bills being signed today strike an important balance between individual liberty guaranteed by the constitution and the necessary laws of protection that create a safe and just society,” Johnson said.
She drew applause from those on both sides of the gun debate in the crowd when she talked of the importance of people being able to express different viewpoints.
“Who here is grateful that (they) live in country where we exercise our right to free speech?” Johnson asked. “We live in a place where you can freely criticize the Legislature, the governor, the president — and that’s critical in an open democracy.”
Ashe, the senate pro tem, said members of his chamber have spent months “debating each other, fact finding and soul searching” over the gun legislation.
“Not every member of the Senate voted for all three of these bills,” Ashe said, “and yet I believe that every member of the Senate can sleep easy at night knowing that they did what in their best judgment promoted public safety and met our obligations to uphold the U.S and Vermont constitutions.”
Ashe spoke of the work of Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who was standing alongside him, in advocating for years for universal background checks.
Ashe also thanked Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he “is the reason S.221 is being signed into law today and why H.422 is as strong as it is.”
There were few people booing for Sears, as he voted against S.55, the bill that drew the greatest ire of gun rights supporters.
“I figured I should be there to celebrate the passage of 422 and 221,” Sears said after the signing. “It’s the law now and we move on.”
Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s spokeswoman, said after the event that the public bill signing allowed people on both sides of the debate an opportunity to take part.
“I don’t think it was unexpected,” she said of the crowd reaction, adding of the governor, “I think he’s been candid and open throughout this entire discussion and today was just a continuation.”
Jason Gibbs, the governor’s chief of staff, said he couldn’t recall the last public bill signing out of the Statehouse steps.
He said he remembered Gov. Jim Douglas doing it when he signed a permit reform bill, and believed other recent governors had done it as well.
“The governor thought it was really important to give everyone with all points of view on this issue the opportunity to see the event and also to hear what he has to say about it,” Gibbs said.
There was a large police presence at the event.
Asked if the governor had received any threats prior to the bill signing, Gibbs responded, “We’ve received some threatening comments, but we don’t discuss how we handle those or what the security protocol is for them.”
About 50 people, including members of the governor’s Cabinet, lawmakers, area officials and other backers of the bills stood behind Scott as he addressed the crowd.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, was among those standing in back of Scott as the governor spoke from the podium.
“I think the governor is doing something very brave and important for the safety of all Vermonters,” Weinberger said following the address, describing the scene as being “quite remarkable.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, I don’t think anybody has,” Weinberger said. “It certainly shows the intensity of passions on both sides. I don’t think the opponents of today’s bill do any favors for their cause through such disrespectable actions.”
Prior to the event, the crowd was calm, with people on each side of the debate milling about with others on their side.
Don Schneider, 69, of Waterbury, Vt., attended the event holding a sign reading, “Thank you for listening to the people and not the NRA.”
He said he showed up at the Statehouse to let the governor know he supported his action in signing “responsible” gun legislation.
Though the number of those opposed to the legislation appeared to outnumber those in support at the event, Schneider said that wasn’t necessarily an indication of the public’s view at large.
“I think the public, the majority, my sense is, support this, I think otherwise lawmakers wouldn’t have done this,” Schneider said.
Forty-two-year-old Mary Knapp, of Northfield, Vt., held up a pair of flip-flops to illustrate Scott’s changing position on the issue.
“It’s just a message telling him that the people who voted aren’t really happy with him going back on his word and what he promised he would do,” she said.
Knapp said she voted for Scott in the last election, but wouldn’t do it again.
“If I have to, I’ll write someone else in,” she said.
Scott said people were free to air their views, but needed to stop and listen as well, so that differences in opinion don’t harden into hate.
“We need to rise above it,” he said, “treat each other better even when we disagree.”
© Copyright (c) 2018 Valley News
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.