Gov. Peter Shumlin had this to say about gun control: “What I think doesn’t matter.”
He has never been more wrong.
Shumlin has a long history as a defender of gun rights who believes that state-by-state gun regulation is an exercise in futility. This year he won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and received a campaign contribution from the NRA’s political arm. Vermont is a state of hunters, and politicians generally are wary of getting on the wrong side of Vermont sportsmen. Shumlin is no different.
And that is why what Shumlin thinks matters. The mass murders in Newtown, Conn., last month changed the equation. The slaughter of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School is forcing politicians to move out of their comfort zone and to consider common-sense steps to bring gun violence under control.
It’s easy for governors and members of Congress to hide behind the Second Amendment and their traditional alliance with sportsmen, averting the wrath and the political pressure of the firearms industry and its defender, the NRA. Why forego those useful political contributions? Why create a political headache that can be avoided by finding an excuse to do nothing?
The excuse that Shumlin uses is a handy one. He notes that gun buyers thwarted in Vermont could go to New Hampshire to buy a gun. (Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts, which has tough gun laws, frequently complain that gun buyers there can easily go to Vermont.) Federal regulation is the only real solution, Shumlin says.
He is right, of course. But what is it going to take to bring about a federal solution? It will take politicians at all levels willing to stand up to the NRA. If Shumlin is not willing to denounce the NRA after its disgraceful pre-Christmas performance, when it sought to elevate the level of paranoia in the nation to new heights, all the better to sell more guns, then he is demonstrating a serious failure of nerve.
What Shumlin thinks matters now more than ever. Lawmakers at the federal level will be bolstered all the more when previous friends of the NRA show that they have had enough. If Shumlin were to denounce the NRA now, calling for common-sense regulation at the state and federal level, he would show that the hold of the NRA is not unbreakable.
The NRA’s call for armed guards in every school revealed the logical consequences of a position founded on fear. The NRA would turn the nation into an armed camp, bristling with weapons, primed for explosion. In that sense, it is the NRA that is making war on America.
Does it not matter what Shumlin thinks about that?
In many areas, Shumlin has been willing to assume a leadership role because of the failure of leadership at the federal level. On climate change and health care he has not used as an excuse that the states are powerless to solve the problem.
The movement for sane gun regulation can only gain momentum if people at the state and local level show they are willing. There was much verbiage in Washington following the Newtown shootings, and President Obama sounded stronger on gun control than ever before. He has appointed a commission led by Vice President Biden to develop a strategy that he wants to implement immediately.
But as time passes, it will grow easier for members of Congress to lose their courage. If governors, especially previous friends of the NRA, show that they understand that the times have changed and that action is necessary, Congress will have a harder time backing down. Instead of copping out, Shumlin should be hammering at Congress and at his fellow governors.
The gun regulations under discussion are not likely to impinge on the rights of most Vermont gun owners. Vermont hunters don’t need assault rifles or large ammunition clips. Vermonters have no interest in allowing criminals or disturbed people to skirt background checks by buying guns at gun shows.
The most important change that is needed is the change in our culture relating to guns and violence, and the only way to change the culture is to stand up for change: to assert that the untrammeled right to indulge whatever gun-owning fantasy you please does not trump the right of children to go to school in safety. For too long the nation has indulged the predilections of people who refuse to acknowledge that public safety requires them to allow for reasonable limits on gun ownership. Their selfishness has been elevated to a high public virtue, and the nation’s refusal to call them on it only encourages it.
Shumlin ought to show some courage, now more than ever.