Hundreds rally against gun legislation in Bennington

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BENNINGTON — A crowd of at least 300 gun rights supporters filled the Four Corners downtown on Saturday to protest the Legislature's passage of S.55, legislation that puts new limits on gun ownership in Vermont.

Holding signs bearing such slogans as "Guns don't kill people! People kill people," "I'm an American, I have the right to bear arms," "Second amendment protects the first," and "Gun free zones are victim zones," the protesters encouraged motorists to honk in support through the early afternoon.

A handful of signs singled out Gov. Phil Scott, who has promised to sign the legislation, as well as two additional measures that would allow police to take guns from people considered at risk of harming themselves or others, and from people arrested or cited for domestic assault.

S.55, which gained momentum after the shooting deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and the arrest of a teenager accused of planning a school shooting in Fair Haven, has four main provisions: It bans long gun magazines with more than 10 rounds and pistol magazines with more than 15 rounds, requires background checks for private gun purchases, raises the legal age for gun ownership from 18 to 21, and bans bump stocks, devices that raise the speed with which semi-automatic weapons fire bullets.

Rallies were also held in South Burlington and Barre. Another is planned for April 14 in Montpelier.

Steve Roy, of Pownal, said he joined the Bennington rally because he opposes two parts of S.55: the change in the age of legal gun ownership, and the magazine ban. He doubted whether either would prevent the kind of gun violence that prompted the Legislature to act, and called the magazine restriction "low-hanging fruit" and "feel-good legislation."

"I have absolutely no problems with the universal background check, I don't have any problem with that at all," said Roy, who is the veterans' service agent for northern Berkshire County in Massachusetts. "I completely understand that there's a great number of people who have absolutely no business being around firearms. And I also don't have a problem with licensure, either."

Many in the crowd wore blaze orange, camouflage or both, but most did not, encouraged by organizers through Facebook to consider dressing in everyday clothes. Similarly, while a few carried long guns, they were a small minority. "The last thing we want to do is look like a crazed or scary mob ... the image matters," one organizer posted on the event's Facebook page.

The rally was orderly, spirited and defiant. The crowd included families with young children, some holding signs.

Nataya Cross, of Bennington, a lifelong hunter who learned to handle a gun when she was young, objected to the 21-year age limit and the magazine restriction. "I feel if you can enlist in the military and shoot a gun, if you can vote, if you can drive a car, if you can do any of those things at 18, I feel you should be able to own a firearm at 18," she said.

"The extended mags [ban] is bogus - nobody has ever died from a magazine," Cross added. "Yeah, that is something that goes into your gun, but the person who pulls the trigger is the person that kills people."

She said she does agree "to an extent" with background checks, although "I believe that no matter what, you can outlaw anything and a criminal is going to find it."

Some participants declined to be interviewed by a reporter, or refused to give their names, fearing backlash. "I don't mind coming out here, but I told my wife that I wouldn't have my name put in the paper or my picture taken," one Pownal man said.

Todd Peterson, of Johnsonville, N.Y., said he came to the rally out of solidarity with Vermont gun owners. "I've been through this in New York - they've already stripped us of half of our rights," he said, referring to the state's New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, commonly known as the NY SAFE Act. "These rights are fundamental, constitutional, American rights. There's no state border, as far as I'm concerned - your rights are your rights as an American citizen," Peterson said.

A number of protesters carried flags - not just the American flag, but the Revolutionary War "Don't Tread on Me" flag, and the blue, green and white flag of Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, which has been adopted as the regimental flag of the Vermont National Guard.

Nate Niles, of Shaftsbury, said he attended because "I don't want my rights infringed on."

Although he was not familiar with the provisions of S.55, he said, he opposes any gun control of any kind. A gun, he said, is "a paperweight until there's a human involved - it's just an inanimate object."

The Parkland shooting is "a pretty complex problem," he said. "It seems like many people dropped the ball with that young man and the management of his health care. I live with a teacher, I understand what it's like to be fearful of your life partner not coming home maybe because of where they work.

"I don't know that I endorse teachers carrying guns; I know that the police are very well trained. I certainly don't want to shoot bullets in a crowd. You have to be trained to do that. I certainly don't want my teacher armed," he added.

The demonstration ended at 2 p.m. sharp, with a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com

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