It ain't maple syrup.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Liberal Vermont Goes Gun Crazy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, believes that the federal law requiring gun dealers to conduct background checks on gun purchasers "makes sense." But Shumlin isn't supporting a bill in the Vermont Senate that would require similar checks on sales at gun shows and on the Internet. "The laws that we have in place in Vermont serve us well," Shumlin said at a news conference in late January.

In effect, Shumlin's position is that background checks are a sensible safety policy at gun shops, and an unnecessary intrusion at gun shows; that if Shumlin walks into a federally licensed shop his gun purchase should be preceded by a background check, but if he buys the exact same gun at a gun show or via Facebook, the purchase requires no oversight. Logically, this is absurd. Legally, it's the law in much of the U.S.

Yet why would one of the nation's most liberal states -- in 2012 Obama won a higher share of the vote, 67 percent, in Vermont than he did in New York -- fail to extend background checks to cover gun shows and Internet sales? For the same reason that the nation as a whole failed: a well-organized and fanatical minority has sensitized political leaders to the most exquisite forms of unreason.

Vermont has a strong hunting culture. But hunting would be unaffected by universal background checks. The state has a strong gun culture in general. But the background-check legislation would only deprive felons and the mentally unstable of the convenience of purchasing guns legally; no one else would lose their gun rights. Vermont also has a political culture that celebrates town-hall politics and responsiveness to citizens. But extreme gun-rights supporters are not the only residents of Vermont: Opinion polls in the state, as in the nation at large, show overwhelming public support for universal background checks.   (Everytown for Gun Safety, which is supported by Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, has aided Gun Sense Vermont. Gun Sense Vermont backs the Vermont background check legislation.) 

Based on the evidence, it's tempting to conclude that Vermont's background-checks debate doesn't have much to do with background checks. Gun Owners of Vermont, which identifies itself as a "pro-gun organization, committed to a no-compromise position on firearms ownership rights," basically concurs.

In a letter this month outlining its opposition to the proposed law, the organization asserted that background checks are essentially a form of gun registration -- the great bugaboo of the gun-rights fringe. "This IS registration," the letter stated. In a blog post on the group's website, Donald Cline wrote that background checks -- presumably including the checks that have been legally required and conducted since the 1990s -- are tantamount to "the death of our Bill of Rights."

At a public hearing in Montpelier this week, other opponents agreed that background-check legislation was a stalking horse for the most nefarious aims.

“The purpose of S.31 is to build a legislative framework for registering all guns,” said Ed Wilson, according to the news website VTdigger.org, which identified Wilson as a federally licensed gun dealer from Morrisville. "Several others made similar points," reported VTdigger.org, "arguing that gun laws could be used by the government for tyranny in the future."

That's the beating heart of the opposition: that a law -- any law, including one that merely rationalizes an existing law by extending it equally to all parties -- is a giant lunge toward dictatorship and oppression. And in the gun movement, dictatorship and oppression always begin with gun confiscation -- if only because that places heroic gun slingers at the center of the drama.

Objectively, this is crazy. The U.S. Congress is so beholden to gun voters and to the gun lobby that it responded to a massacre of children with a legislative shrug. Meanwhile, the U.S. contains an estimated 300 million guns and some 115 million households. Good luck to the government agency in charge of confiscation. (And never mind seeking appropriations from Congress next year.)

The prospect of confiscation is a dark fantasy but one that continues to drive policy -- or the lack of it -- in Washington and many state capitals, including Montpelier. The irony, as Buzzfeed reported, is that a national registry of millions of gun owners already exists -- at the National Rifle Association, which uses the list for its own purposes.

Next door to Vermont, in revolutionary-era New Hampshire, authorities conducted door-to-door surveys of gun ownership, according to Adam Winkler's book, "Gunfight." Somehow New Hampshire survived the ordeal. Freedom didn't shrivel across the northeast. Neither, alas, did paranoia.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net