During their legislative update, Rep. Laura Sibilia and Sen. Jeannette White talked about the debate over guns and school safety that has unfolded following a school shooting in Parkland, FL, and the arrest of an 18-year-old Poultney resident who allegedly planned a school shooting in Fair Haven.
“I have heard from folks in Dover and throughout the district speaking pretty passionately about all sides of the issue of school safety,” said Sibilia. “It’s literally impossible for us to do what you would all like us to do. So I would ask you to engage with us and help us understand how we can maintain safety and protect the Second Amendment, which is very important to me.”
Sibilia said “There has been a big change with what we’re talking about in Montpelier with regard to gun control.” On February 22, Gov. Phil Scott sent a memorandum to legislators outlining his plan regarding what he referred to as “extreme violence in our schools or in our communities.” In the memo, Scott outlines points of action, including measures to strengthen school security, to protect those who speak up, and to act to keep guns “out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
“We have passed a bill in the Senate that we’re referring to as ‘extreme risk,’ or ‘red flag,’” said White. “It allows a judge to issue a warrant to take weapons — all weapons, not just guns — if the person is deemed a danger to themselves or others.” White said the Senate had also passed a bill regarding background checks for all ownership transfers, but a bill regarding empowering law enforcement to search for and seize weapons during domestic abuse calls had not yet passed.
Resident David Smith asked how seizing guns wouldn’t be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. “How do you skirt around the Fourth Amendment, which clearly protects against seizing property from a private citizen?”
“The Fourth Amendment prohibits (search and seizure) without due process,” said White. “In this case, there is a process that would be gone through and particular guidelines that would have to be shown through a judge.”
Resident Susan Rand said she wants assault weapons banned. “The Senate and the House have not even addressed the idea of assault weapons and banning assault weapons,” said Rand. “Assault weapons are military weapons, weapons of war. There is no need for anyone to have a weapon of war.”
“I hear you,” said Sibilia. “But know that I have it coming in the other ear, too, adamantly opposed (to that position).”
Later in the meeting, selectboard chair Josh Cohen, who said he was stepping out of his chair seat to address the issue, read aloud a letter he wrote in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Cohen asked that the selectboard and school board sign the letter and send it to Rep. Welch, Sen Leahy, and Sen. Sanders. It read, in part:
“As representatives charged with educating our children and improving the quality of life for our citizens, we demand that you find a way to stop these killings. We do not make suggestions in this letter. We simply demand that you do something! Do not come home until you do,” and, “The school board takes its job very seriously. There are federal and state mandates put upon it to ensure our children are learning. Added to that list over the past few years has been safety concerns due to school shootings.”
Cohen also read the letter aloud at Dover’s pre-Town Meeting, where it was met with praise, with residents calling it a measured and appropriate response. But at Town Meeting, new voices were heard.
“I think the real root of the problem is kids aren’t brought up (right) to begin with,” said Smith. “I would much rather that letter said in cooperation with parents’ responsibility. If that letter is meant to represent me, I can’t support it. It doesn’t mention me at all. I’ve tried to raise my kids the right way and I don’t expect Congress, a representative, or a mental health professional to do my job for me.”
Several residents thanked Smith for his comment. Linda Baxter said when her daughter was in middle school, she worried other kids could take and misuse a gun she had possession of, so she took it to then chief of police Bobby Edwards. “My father thought I was an actual wacko that I did something like that, but I did,” said Baxter. “It is a parent’s responsibility. I didn’t think (the gun) was something I should have. I thought it was better it be at the police station.”
Linda Kersten said as an auditor she visits many homes and is amazed by the number of guns she encounters. “I witness a lot of times the kind of responsibilities that Dave (Smith) is talking about, and the need for that responsibility,” said Kersten, noting that she didn’t like Cohen’s letter. “It’s a rant, it’s not constructive, and it doesn’t expect to get any legitimate answers. We have an obligation to direct our legislators. This does not direct.”
Edward Barber said “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and board member Dan Baliotti suggested that the federal government should help enhance security at local schools. “We can’t go to an airport or a bus or whatever without going through some sort of detection,” said Baliotti. The comment was met with an audible expression of discontent from resident Marc Schauber.
Residents will have several opportunities in the coming weeks to speak to the matter. Sibilia is hosting a joint community forum about school safety with Rep. John Gannon, of Wilmington, on Sunday, March 18, at 4 pm at Twin Valley High School. A flier for the event asks residents and school and town employees of Dover, Halifax, Searsburg, Stamford, Readsboro, Wardsboro, Whitingham, and Wilmington to attend.
And although at pre-Town Meeting it seemed as though the boards would sign Cohen’s letter at Town Meeting, after pushback from several residents, Werner said it ought to be put on a warning for both boards before it’s signed. Per the boards at Town Meeting, the matter will be revisited at the boards’ next meetings.