Ringed by hecklers, supporters Scott signs historic gun bills

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MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott took to the Statehouse steps Wednesday to sign into law three bills that make historic changes to state gun statutes. As he walked out in front of the crowd, gun rights activists shouted "traitor," while supporters of new legal restrictions on firearms countered, "thank you."

Those chants continued intermittently throughout his 25-minute speech. The Republican governor, who as a candidate opposed new gun laws, put his signature on the three bills shortly after 2 p.m.

The governor began his speech talking about how his stance on gun control changed two months ago after he read details in the case of an 18-year-old Poultney man accused in a foiled school shooting plot.

"We had a close call," he said. "But just like the ones we all experience in our own lives, like a near miss on the highway, we say to ourselves `I'll never do that again.' This is one of those moments where as a state we have the opportunity to do things differently."

As detractors jeered, the governor said he realized the political consequences of that change. "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.

In the middle of his speech, Scott spoke more broadly about the deterioration of discourse in America, and how anger was contributing to a rise in violence.

"Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry, hateful social media posts that you can either like or not with no room for conversation or respect or disagreement and where facts and details no longer seem to matter," Scott said.

"Do we honestly think that the erosion of civility and respect of others in some way is unrelated to this type of violence and disregard for human lives we are seeing?" he said.

Orange-clad protesters heckled the governor after he mentioned that the state would be investing $5 million in school safety improvements. Scott addressed them directly: "If you want to boo on that, go ahead and boo."

Scott said he was "jolted" two months ago by details released in court records in the case of Jack Sawyer, who is accused of planning a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. During a press conference the week of that arrest, the governor 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.

The thwarted school shooting spurred an about-face by Scott on gun issues. 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.

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. That position opened the way for the landmark legislation to move swiftly through the Statehouse.

Two of the bills, S.221 and H.422, which allow law enforcement to seize firearms in certain situations from those deemed dangerous or charged with domestic assault, both gained broad support in the Democratically controlled House and Senate.

The third bill, S.55, set off protests and pleas to the governor from gun rights supporters to veto the legislation. Few Republicans voted for it.

Supporters of S.55 say the legislation's provisions are aimed at taking guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them and reduces the "lethality" of firearms in potential violent situations.

Opponents of the bill said many of its provision are unenforceable, ineffective, and in some cases, unconstitutional, setting the stage for possible challenges in court.

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.

- 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.


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