Scott vetoes handgun waiting period; signs expansive abortion protections

Gov. Phil Scott

Gov. Phil Scott listens to a question during his weekly press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 28. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

[G]ov. 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.

Waiting period veto

“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.”

Mitzi Johnson and Tim Ashe

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate leader Tim Ashe respond to Gov. Phil Scott's budget address in 2018. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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.

Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the Senate Judiciary chair. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“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 … 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.

Alyssa and Rob Black, the parents of Andrew Black, testify in favor of a waiting period for firearm purchases before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 28. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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.

Signs abortion bill

The governor’s decision to sign H.57 means Vermont law, currently silent on abortion, will now have some of the broadest protections in the country.

“Like many Vermonters, I have consistently supported a woman’s right to choose, which is why today I signed H.57 into law,” Scott wrote in Monday’s statement.

“This legislation affirms what is already allowable in Vermont – protecting reproductive rights and ensuring those decisions remain between a woman and her health care provider. I know this issue can be polarizing, so I appreciate the respectful tone and civility from all sides throughout this discussion.”

Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the House minority leader, was among the House Republicans who said the bill was too expansive because it failed to set any limits on when an abortion can be carried out or add extra regulations for teenagers.

Pattie McCoy

Rep. Pattie McCoy, the House minority leader, speaks in the Statehouse in January. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“From my take on it, it doesn’t have as many bumpers as I would have liked to see on the bill,” McCoy said, adding that many in the Republican Party would be disappointed.

“I think we have a lot of individuals who are pro life in the Republican Party so I’m sure it will be upsetting for some, others would have liked him to pass without signing, but once again we are not the governor,” she added. “We voiced our concerns when we had the bill on the floor.”

The Vermont Right to Life Committee, a leading anti-abortion group, released a statement Monday expressing its frustration with the governor.

“By putting his signature on H.57, Governor Phil Scott endorses unlimited, unregulated abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy," said Mary Beerworth, the group’s executive director. "His signature signals his preference for protecting the business of abortion over other life-affirming options in Vermont statute.”

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England issued a statement praising the actions of the House, Senate and the governor in supporting the “historic and common sense” legislation.

“Each and every day we see proof that abortion rights are on the line, and we cannot risk the threats to abortion access that we’re anticipating at the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Meagan Gallagher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

“We applaud Governor Scott for supporting reproductive rights and for taking action to preserve these rights in Vermont law.”

Xander Landen contributed reporting

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Colin Meyn

About Colin

Colin Meyn is VTDigger's managing editor. He spent most of his career in Cambodia, where he was a reporter and editor at English-language newspapers The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, and most recently at Southeast Asia Globe, a regional current affairs magazine. He is a native of Maine and studied journalism at Northwestern University.

Email: [email protected]

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