MONTPELIER — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Galbraith scrapped the planned announcement of his college plan for low-income Vermonters and instead called Monday for a ban on “assault-style” weapons following the massacre in Orlando on Sunday.
Galbraith called for several new gun control measures at the state and federal level as authorities continued to investigate the shooting death of 49 people at a night club in Orlando, allegedly by Omar Mateen, who was killed by police. He told reporters at a news conference Monday at the Community College of Vermont there would be “a significant change in topic.”
“Today, with what’s happened in Orlando, I think that is the focus of attention in our state and it raises a broader issue for me, which I really go back to Robert Kennedy and his quote — “When in the face of evil good men do nothing, that is how evil triumphs,” he said.
The former diplomat and Windham County state senator decried the lack of conversation in Vermont about new gun control measures.
“We pretend that we are somehow immune from the national trends, when in fact, we’re not and when we face these tragedies we often go to a different issue. This issue is not about the Islamic State. It’s not about the Taliban. It’s about a single, disturbed individual having a weapon that he should not have had,” Galbraith said. “The AR-15 assault weapon was used in Orlando, in San Bernardino and in Sandy Hook. None of the people who had it should have had the weapon. In fact, the weapon should not be available so I’m calling on a ban of … military assault-style weapons in the state of Vermont.”
He defined such weapons as ones that provide the capability to quickly kill large numbers of people. Those weapons have “no legitimate self-defense purpose” and “no legitimate hunting purpose,” according to Galbraith.
“There is a difference between weapons that are personal weapons — that are self-defense weapons, hunting weapons — and weapons that are designed for military purposes to kill lots of people. They’re automatic, they’re semi-automatic, they have large magazines. They can shoot off a lot of bullets in a short amount of time. That’s what a military-style weapon is,” he said.
Galbraith also called for limiting the size of magazines because “when you have large capacity magazines you can kill a lot of people.” Additionally, he called for both the state and federal government to ban the sale of guns to people on the federal no fly list, improved cooperation between the state and federal government to prevent the sale of guns to people who are suspected terrorists.
“It is unacceptable that somebody who was under suspicion for terrorism and extremism would have had a concealed weapons permit,” Galbraith said. “This is a conversation that we really need to have in the state of Vermont.”
Galbraith’s primary rivals also weighed in Monday. Sue Minter, a former secretary of the Agency of Transportation, echoed Galbraith’s remarks in a statement that embraced expanded background checks and a ban on “military style assault weapons.”
“Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a church in Charleston, an elementary school in Connecticut and now a night club in Orlando – enough is enough,” Minter said. “Today our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and the LGBTQ community. But, that is not enough. We make it far too easy for criminals and dangerous individuals to buy guns and because of that we suffer from 25 times more gun homicides than any other developed country in the world. We need elected officials who have the courage to lead on this issue. That’s why I support criminal background checks for all gun sales and a ban on military style assault weapons.”
Meanwhile, Matt Dunne, a former state senator from Windsor County, provided the Vermont Press Bureau with a statement calling the attack “heartbreaking and infuriating.” He said it is “right to take a serious look at policy steps that could be taken to help prevent future atrocities.” Dunne, however, referred to himself as “a pragmatist,” and said he believes “we must take action that will make a real difference, not just a rhetorical impact.”
“First, we absolutely must implement universal background checks. Second, we must ban people on the terrorist watch list, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns, and we must crack down on straw purchases,” Dunne said, stopping short of calling for the ban on assault-style weapons that Galbraith and Minter embraced.
Dunne said gun policy should be created at the federal level, but the state should act if a solution is not found.
“Ultimately, American gun policy must come from the federal government, because a patchwork of 50 different policies leaves all Americans vulnerable. If Congress continues to block a real, thoughtful conversation on this issue and refuses to take action, Vermont will have no choice but to move on impactful policies that preserve a responsible person’s right to own and use guns for hunting, sporting and self defense, while keeping guns out of the hands of those whose only goal is to use them to murder and terrorize law abiding people,” he said.
On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott provided a statement saying he “will always put public safety first and welcome discussions on how to reduce violence.” But Scott said he does not favor new restrictions on guns.
“Current gun control laws in Vermont strike an important balance between our rights as American citizens and public safety, and I would not support any further restrictions,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau.
Scott said the country “is mourning the loss of 50 Americans in what is considered the worst mass shootings in our nation’s history.”
“Vermonters are right to be saddened and shocked by this act of hate-filled terror. We are fortunate to live in a place like Vermont where most welcome and support our friends and neighbors regardless of our differences whether they be race, religion, or sexual orientation,” Scott said.
His primary rival Bruce Lisman, provided a statement to the Vermont Press Bureau through his campaign manager Shawn Shouldice. Lisman said his “deepest sympathy is with the families and friends of the victims of yesterday’s shooting in Orlando,” and said “a thorough investigation” is needed “to better understand how the shooter, at least twice interrogated by the FBI, was able to remain at large and commit these heinous acts.”
But Lisman said he does not support any changes to gun laws in Vermont.
“I believe Vermont’s gun laws are good and do not need to be changed. Vermont has among the lowest violent crimes rate per capita involving gun use among any state,” Lisman said. “As Governor, I will protect the Vermont Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights which provides uniform statewide regulations of firearms ownership, transfer and transportation. I will protect against infringements of Article 16 of Vermont’s Constitution (the rights of Vermonters to bear arms).”
The ideas advanced by the Democratic candidates were largely in line with what Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, laid out in a speech Monday afternoon.
“I believe that weapons of war have no place on our streets,” Clinton said in Cleveland. “If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you should not be able to go buy a gun with no questions asked. And you shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade background checks by buying online or at a gun show. And yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plan you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
“That may not stop every shooting or every terrorist attack, but it will stop some and it will save lives and it will protect our first responders,” she added.
Efforts in Vermont to enact more stringent gun control measures have faltered in recent years as gun rights groups organized and pushed back. Legislation to create universal background checks for all gun sales failed to become law in 2015 and was not supported by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Galbraith faulted the Vermont Democratic Party, including himself, for not doing more.
“These are all things that we can do in the state of Vermont and at this time should be doing and it should be part of the conversation. Too long, political leaders, and I’ll confess, myself included, have ducked this conversation,” he said. “I will critique my own party. I will critique myself. As you know, I took on a lot of issues when I served in the Senate. I certainly didn’t make myself popular, but I was persistent. I didn’t take on this issue and I wish I had. I’m taking it on now.”
Galbraith, who said he owns one gun and has hunted in the past, leveled criticism at the National Rifle Association as a tool of gun manufacturers, not a representative group of gun owners.
“The National Rifle Association is not an organization of gun owners. It is the arm of the gun manufacturers. It’s probably the single most successful corporate lobby that exists in the United States,” he said.
Gun control could become a mainstay in the gubernatorial race with all three Democratic candidates advocating for measures. Galbraith said electing a candidate who supports such measures would provide a mandate to act.
“Elections are about choices. One of the choices that can be made in this election is to choose somebody who has a very clear position on what he would do. I think that provides a mandate to go ahead. It’s also part of the debate,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vermont should continue to embrace Syrian refugees and others who are seeking to escape war and other difficult situations, Galbraith said.
“It’s very important that we not categorize groups of people and this comes up with the connection of Syrian refugees coming to the United States. They are not terrorists. Many of them are Christians or Alawites, Kurds, people from religions of ethnicities that have nothing to do with the Islamic State,” he said. “Vermont should continue to be a welcoming place,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. on Monday, June 13 to include comments from Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.