SWANTON — Marcel Rainville was 9 when a priest gave him his first gun, a .22-caliber pump action rifle. When he was in high school, his father gave him a 12-gauge shotgun, still stored upstairs in the home where he grew up.
Every fall, Rainville — a 69-year-old Catholic priest in charge of preparing men to enter the Society of St. Edmund religious order — returns to the family farm among the rolling fields of northwestern Vermont where his father taught him to hunt.
There is no contradiction, he says, between his life of faith and his lifetime connection to firearms.
“I guess what I’m saying is that a firearm is a tool, it’s not a weapon,” Rainville said. “It’s something that we use in the context of an activity which involves family, it involves tradition. It has a lot to do with a way of life. I guess family is at the center of it.”
The right to hunt is enshrined in the Vermont Constitution; the state often considered the most liberal in the country has no state gun control laws. A 2001 study found that 42 percent of Vermont homes had firearms, above the national average of 31.7 percent. Yet the state’s rate of homicide by firearms is so low the numbers don’t register in statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The nationwide cry for gun control in the wake of the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and in the course of the failed effort to pass tougher gun laws in Congress has been heard in Vermont. But it hasn’t taken hold.
“The fact is Vermonters don’t own weapons to kill and maim other human beings. They own weapons to manage our natural resources and to carry on hunting traditions that are the glue to our family units and the glue to our communities,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who frequently talks of his life as a deer hunter. He’s even taken reporters hunting with him.
“We have extraordinary respect for both the usefulness and the potential destructiveness of weapons,” he said. “We don’t use them to turn them against innocent people.”
Vermont’s relationship with guns was highlighted this year when the magazine Guns & Ammo published a survey that ranked the 50 states and the District of Colombia for their friendliness to gun owners. Arizona and Vermont, which frequently find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum, ranked one-two as the most gun friendly states, with nearly perfect scores.
There are no restrictions in Vermont on the use of concealed weapons or magazine sizes and the ability to buy assault rifles. The survey said the only reason Vermont didn’t get a perfect score was because the state didn’t have a “stand your ground” law that broadens the conditions under which people are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves.
Vermont’s gun culture is not entirely benign. The state’s suicide rate with firearms ranks seventh in the country.
And police warn of an increasing threat posed by out-of-state drug dealers, many of whom are arrested with high-power firearms more associated with big-city gang warfare than with Vermont deer hunters, but few of those weapons have been used to commit crimes, so far.
On Town Meeting Day in March, at least five Vermont communities approved nonbinding measures calling for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as expanded background checks. But a gun control effort was quashed in the Vermont Legislature almost as soon as it was introduced this year.
Shumlin isn’t pushing for gun control legislation. Instead, he favors what he calls “a 50-state solution” to gun control.
Vermont’s chief Game Warden Col. David LeCours has spent 30 years dealing with poachers. In most cases, he said, poachers don’t think of using their high-powered weapons against the wardens.
“They’re very well armed,” he said. “Those individuals generally think about trying to get away as opposed to engaging in a fight.”
But Vermont is changing, LeCours said, and he’s finding that an increasing number of residents don’t own guns.
“We occasionally get a sick animal or something that shows up in people’s dooryard, and back in the day they would call you after they’d already killed it and say, ‘You know, maybe I had a rabid animal,’” he said. “Now, it’s like, ‘I have no way to take care of this. I need service; I need you to come and take care of it.’”