Speaker Smith Says Any Gun Bill Needs To Start In Senate

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Many Vermont lawmakers say gun control legislation would be best handled at the federal level. But House Speaker Shap Smith says if a bill is debated in Montpelier, it needs to emerge first from the Senate.

Smith was born in Danbury, Conn., so he says the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown that killed 20 first graders and their teachers touched him personally.

"I spent my first five years in Newtown," Smith said. "My dad and my mom grew up in Sandy Hook. Somebody that my son had gone to camp with was in the school that day."

Last month’s shooting has focused the attention of many lawmakers around the region, and the debate over guns has resurfaced for the first time in years in statehouses across the country and in Washington.

"This will be difficult," President Obama said on Wednesday, announcing his plan to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, close the so-called gun show loophole for background checks and limit the size of magazines. The president called for broad support.

"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Mr. Obama said. "We’re going to need voices in those areas – in those congressional districts – where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and say this is important."

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo muscled a bill through the legislature in 48 hours. And Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called for new state gun laws.

But, despite demands for action from local leaders, Gov. Peter Shumlin has said gun control needs a 50-state solution at the federal level.

Speaker Smith agrees, and he doesn’t see Vermont taking New York’s approach.

"I haven’t had a chance to see the New York law," Smith said. "It’s not clear to me whether any of the legislators saw the New York law before it passed. A deal was announced by the governor and two hours later the Senate passed it."

Smith pointed out that Vermont has a strong hunting tradition and he doesn’t want to restrict responsible gun ownership. Still, the Vermont Senate is quickly turning to gun control: Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, introduced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit the manufacture or sale of high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic assault weapons in Vermont.

"In the same way we like to create region-wide areas for things like same-sex marriage, we’re going to have to go state-by-state, region-by-region on guns," Baruth said.

Speaker Smith doubts such legislation, if passed, would reduce gun violence.

"If you enact gun legislation in one state but in another there is a different scheme, guns can flow across borders," Smith said. "It’s not clear whether one state enacting something is going to make things better."

The debate over guns is expected to continue at the Statehouse. The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to hold a public hearing on guns in February. The idea, lawmakers say, is to foster a conversation generally about where Vermont should go.

Speaker Smith Looks Ahead (Vermont Edition)

Obama: Gun-Control Measures No Substitute For Action From Congress (NPR)

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