Our opinion: Children matter more than guns
Because someone heard something that sounded very wrong and summoned the courage to do the right thing, Fair Haven avoided becoming the next community to suffer an unthinkable crime — a mass shooting at a school.
The individuals who stepped forward, and the law enforcement professionals who followed up and arrested 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney, have given Vermont and its leaders an opportunity to act decisively, before more children die in a place where they should be safe and secure.
Last Thursday, the day after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and educators dead, Gov. Phil Scott was still of the belief that Vermont's gun laws offer adequate protection and that this state is safe. Scott, a Republican who has supported Second Amendment rights during his political career, told the Burlington weekly Seven Days as much in an interview Thursday.
Then came Friday's arrest of Sawyer, on charges he had meticulously planned to kill as many of his former classmates and teachers as possible.
The governor read the police affidavit. And it was then, he said, that he realized the Green Mountain State had avoided unthinkable horror "only by the grace of God and the courage of a young woman who spoke up."
"As governor, I have a responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens, especially our kids," he said last Friday, "which means having an honest and open and fact-based discussion about access to guns by those who shouldn't have them."
To be clear, Scott, speaking with the emotion of a man shaken by what he saw and heard, did not limit his focus to legislative discussion on firearms alone. Mental health and the root causes of violence have to be part of the state's review, he said. He's correct about that. Vermont has seen its mental health resources stretched thin, and investment is needed to address the state's mental health needs and prevent future tragedy.
Still, when asked by a reporter about background checks on private sales of weapons, Scott didn't back away. "I think everything should be on the table at this point," he said, according to the Burlington Free Press. "This situation led me to believe that we are not immune to what's happening throughout the country."
In a year in office, Scott has bucked the "leadership" of the national Republican Party, and the oil barons who fund them, on immigration, climate change and tax policy, among other positions.
But taking decisive action on guns, especially military-style guns that are purpose-built to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, will likely be a good deal more difficult. It's an emotional issue, especially in a state with a long tradition of gun ownership.
"I hope he comes to realize that we're his core base," Ed Cutler, the vice president of Gun Owners of Vermont, told the Burlington Free Press on Friday.
With apologies to Mr. Cutler, we beg to differ. Scott is no longer a state Senator from Washington County, carrying the banner for the GOP in politically progressive Vermont. His "core base" is now 625,000-plus Vermonters, including children who deserve to be safe at school, and parents who should never have to worry about safety when they put their child on the school bus in the morning.
The cold details of the affidavit, detailing how a troubled young man allegedly planned to kill as many Fair Haven students as possible, are not politics. The terror and anguish experienced by the victims and survivors of these horrible crimes, or the unfathomable sorrow of parents burying their children, are not rhetoric. Rather, these are disquieting facts that also happen to be the stuff of America's living nightmare. We can no longer avoid or ignore them because they make us uncomfortable. We must confront them, because the price we have paid for our collective inaction is far too high.
Whether Scott can bridge the wide gulf between those who want the strictest possible gun regulations and those who see any gun regulation as an abridgement of constitutional rights remains to be seen. He'll need help, and there certainly seems to be willingness to address the issues in the Legislature, as voiced by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.
"We've heard a variety of root causes of gun violence: irresponsible gun ownership, mental health issues and destabilized families. If we think that school shootings are something that needs to be changed, and I absolutely do, then we all need — at the local, state and federal level — to come up with a plan that fits our values," Johnson said in a prepared statement Friday.
"I want to be perfectly clear that I support the Second Amendment and Vermonters' long tradition and history of hunting sports and sensible gun-ownership," she added. "Common sense gun laws will free us from the gun violence that threatens our homes and our communities. Stronger gun laws protect our children and keep people alive."
We know this: We are sick of and sickened by this awful cycle of death. But we also know that reasonable Vermonters can come together, understanding that lawful, responsible gun ownership and reasonable limits and protections are not mutually exclusive, and do what's necessary to protect our kids. Plain Yankee common sense and commitment are all we need, and both are at hand.
Our children are more important than our guns. We need to remember that.
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