Governor Phil Scott Vetoes S.169

This story first appeared in Vt. Digger on June 10,2019 with photos that have been omitted here.
By Colin Meyn and Alan J. Keays

Gov. Phil Scott announced Monday evening that he has vetoed S.169, gun control legislation that would have required Vermonters to wait 24 hours to buy a handgun.

He also signed H.57, a bill that forbids the government from interfering in a woman’s decision to have an abortion at any stage in her pregnancy. The governor had already said he would let the abortion bill pass into law, though it was unclear if it would get his signature or not.

Scott had until midnight Monday to decide on the waiting period legislation and midnight Tuesday to decide on the abortion bill.

The governor’s statement announcing actions on the bills set off a flurry of statements from groups on both sides of the issues, some offering praise and others accusing him of playing politics with matters of life and death.

The initial reactions from Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were split in their focus. Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, tweeted in support of the governor signing the abortion bill.

“This is the first step in ensuring the next generation of VT women have the same access to reproductive and abortion care that VT women have had for the last 46 years,” she wrote.

Senate leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, released a statement taking the governor to task for his gun control veto and explanation for doing it.

However, because Johnson and Ashe declined to schedule a veto session this year, the soonest they can take up the legislation is January. And it doesn’t appear they would have had the 100 votes they needed in the House.

“Last year, I called for and signed a package of historic gun safety reforms because I believe they make schools, communities, families and individuals safer, while upholding Vermonters’ constitutional rights,” Scott said in an emailed statement.

He listed the accomplishments of those reforms: universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, the ability of police to seize firearms from domestic violence situations and an increase in the minimum age to purchase guns from 18 to 21.

“With these measures in place, we must now prioritize strategies that address the underlying causes of violence and suicide. I do not believe S.169 addresses these areas,” the governor wrote.

“Moving forward,” Scott wrote on Monday, “I ask the Legislature to work with me to strengthen our mental health system, reduce adverse childhood experiences, combat addiction and provide every Vermonter with hope and economic opportunity.”

Ashe said the governor’s spending plans have not reflected his professed desire to prioritize mental health or addiction issues.

“The Governor’s veto letter suggests we need to look to long-term strategies to rebuild our mental health system, or to address childhood poverty, or to tackle our addiction crisis,” he wrote. “These strategies have scarcely registered in the Governor’s proposed budgets each year, and in any event will do little to nothing to prevent gun deaths in 2019 or 2020.”

The veto is Scott’s first of the session, after he matched the all-time record with 11 vetoes last year. He refused to say in recent months whether he intended to let the waiting period pass into law, but said he was unsure if it would really help address suicide in Vermont.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Scott pledged not to support any new gun control laws. His flip once in office infuriated gun rights groups, who pledged to get him out of office. But that didn’t happen, and a drop in his approval rating among Republicans did not do significant damage during elections, when he easily won the primary and general election on his way to a second term.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was disappointed by the governor’s veto.

It was in that Senate committee earlier this year that a more expansive waiting period bill, S.22, that called for a 48-hour delay for all firearms sales was pared down to 24 hours only applying to handguns.

“I don’t think the governor is going to get back the well-wishes of the NRA over this one,” Sears said Monday evening, referring the gun rights supporters who protested Scott’s signing of firearms restrictions in April 2018. “I don’t think they’ll jump up and down given what he signed last year.”

Bill Moore, the firearm policy analyst for the Vermont Traditions Coalitions, who opposed the waiting period in the Legislature said Monday evening he agreed with Scott that the waiting period wasn’t good policy.

“We agree that it’s ineffective … [in addressing] the questions regarding suicide regarding access to firearms and means for suicide, that it wouldn’t have done anything but really restrict people’s access to self protection,” he said.

But instead of praising the governor for his decision, he criticized the governor for signing last year’s sweeping package of gun control bills.

“Where was he last year?” Moore said. “Where was the governor’s concern for balancing rights vs. good policy to protect Vermonters last year when he signed the magazine ban.”

Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, which backed the waiting period measure, said she was surprised the governor vetoed the legislation.

“I am upset,” she said. “I feel like he did not listen to, or look at, the data clearly.”

Lasher-Sommers added, “There is no way that we will stop.”

The waiting period proposal gained momentum early this year, after Alyssa and Rob Black, a couple from Essex, called on the Legislature to enact a gun purchase waiting period in the obituary they wrote for their son, Andrew. Andrew Black died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in December.

The Blacks said they were “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s veto in a statement sent to the media Monday evening.

“We all now understand that suicide is most often an impulsive act, including the Governor,” the statement added. “He was provided with the same information that both the House and Senate were provided with. They created a thoughtful compromise. It is disappointing he went political.”

The Blacks also said they were grateful for the support the measure received in the Legislature.

“While we know this bill would not save everyone, by disrupting access to the most lethal method, it would have saved some,” the couple’s statement added. “This bill would have saved our son, it could have saved yours.”

The Blacks said they would keep pushing for a “reasonable” waiting period. “We will continue our work until Vermont has a Governor that will sign this measure,” the statement read.

Xander Landen contributed reporting