“Do something!” the crowd chanted, drowning out Ohio’s governor at a vigil following a mass shooting on a busy street in Dayton. That shooting, in early August, claimed nine lives. It occurred less than 24 hours after 22 lives were taken in a mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas and less than a week after four were fatally shot at a food festival in Gilroy, California. At the end of August, another mass shooting, with a killer shooting randomly from his car, took seven lives in Odessa, Texas.
The calls to “do something” initially resonated in Washington. It appeared that the Senate would actually take up legislation expanding background checks and promoting “red flag” laws. Unfortunately, that resonance has dissipated. The issue quickly lost its salience in the nation’s capital.
Salience is defined as “the quality of being particularly noticeable, important, or prominent.” The urgency of addressing gun violence is most noticeable, important, and prominent soon after horrific events like those in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Odessa. Last year, gun violence was salient in Vermont after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida and the near miss in Fair Haven, Vermont. The salience of those events helped pave the way for the legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, laws making it harder for those who mean to hurt themselves or others to obtain firearms and reducing the lethality of firearms that may be misused. Act 97 allows law enforcement to show a judge that an individual presents an extreme risk of harm to himself, herself or others and obtain an Extreme Risk Protection Order, requiring the person to relinquish any dangerous weapons. Act 92 allows law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident. And Act 94 expands the requirement for background checks to include private sales, places restrictions on the sale of firearms to those under age 21, limits the transfer and possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines, and bans the transfer and possession of bump-fire stocks.
The salience of an issue, though necessary, may not be sufficient impetus to enact laws to address gun violence. Last December, a young man committed suicide in Essex with a handgun that he had purchased four hours earlier. His parents made this incident salient, urging legislators to pass a law to establish waiting periods for firearm purchases. And the legislature did pass a bill that established a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns. But despite testimony and studies showing that such a waiting period would save lives, Governor Scott vetoed this bill.
I would prefer that legislative action on beneficial policy such as reasonable firearm regulation did not require salience: Vermont should not have to wait for the next salient event – a near miss or personal tragedy – to do something to reduce potential harm from firearms. And despite the progress that the State made last year, in light of the setback from the Governor’s veto this year, there is more to be done. Let’s not wait until the issue becomes salient again.
Let’s not wait until we have more firearm victims in domestic violence situations. Let’s find ways to make sure firearms are kept from domestic abusers or those threatening such abuse.
Let’s not wait until a child accesses an improperly-stored firearm and harms himself, herself or another person. Let’s strengthen our safe storage laws.
Let’s not wait for additional individuals to acquire firearms easily and quickly to cause harm to themselves or others. Let’s continue to push for a reasonable waiting period for the purchase of firearms. Let’s consider restrictions on the most lethal firearms.
Let’s not wait for federal action to address firearm violence. Let’s continue to act locally, knowing that we are participating in a regional solution, joined by other New England states implementing commonsense firearm restrictions.
In the next legislative session, I do not intend to wait. I will continue my efforts to “do something” to reduce the harm from firearms.