On social media, much of the discussion among locals about the legislation, S. 55, an act relating to the disposition of unlawful and abandoned firearms, has been antagonistic, particularly on Sibilia and Gannon’s campaign Facebook pages, which they use to communicate with constituents and post legislative updates. Included among comments to posts pertaining to S. 55 are promises to make sure Sibilia and Gannon are not reelected; debate about the meaning and consequences of the bill; and, notably, threats.
In an interview this week, Gannon said the shape the online debate has taken is suppressing public discourse around what has clearly been a charged issue for both sides.
“There was a threat to line me up and shoot me,” said Gannon. “Which certainly is not civil discourse.”
In a statement posted on Sibilia’s Facebook page and website on Saturday, she wrote, “To those in my district who are posting death threats and threats of bodily harm to me and/or to my fellow House and Senate Members, here are a few things to consider: in addition to the fact that you are creating a public record of your intent, your children, their children, and my children are reading those comments.”
Gannon said that since the threats started coming in, he has limited his time on social media.
“There’s nothing I can say,” said Gannon. “The best thing I can do is lay off of that for the time being. And those are the types of threats that are stifling civic discourse. I should be on social media interacting with people. But it’s hard. And it’s hard to have a conversation with your chief of police about whether or not you need extra protection.”
According to the Facebook accounts associated with commenters, the comments posted on Sibilia and Gannon’s campaign pages in recent days were written by residents of Wilmington, Dover, Whitingham, Newfane, Readsboro, Woodford, Jacksonville, Wardsboro, Somerset, and other towns, some beyond the boundaries of Sibilia and Gannon’s legislative districts.
In an interview this week, Sibilia said fear, mixed with ignorance about the bill itself as well as about the legislative process, may be contributing to the way the bill is being discussed.
“Fear has been fueling this conversation on both sides,” she said. “People are afraid for their kids and people are afraid to lose their rights. And I’m sorry that people are so scared. But fear and ignorance together are incredibly dangerous.”
Sibilia acknowledged the potential positive power of social media, noting that during Tropical Storm Irene, Facebook was one of the most effective communication methods within the community. However, Sibilia expressed concern about the way discussions have unfolded around S. 55, particularly with regard to emotionally charged comments and those that include misinformation.
“I expect passion about this topic,” said Sibilia. “But as an American, I also expect civility in our discourse. And I think that civility has been eroding over time, and that erosion has accelerated particularly under our current national administration. I think people are being given permission to say things and behave in ways that we would have found completely unacceptable even five years ago.”
Gannon said he felt the online rhetoric, as well as other intimidation tactics, are coming from a vocal minority. “I don’t think they represent most of the hunters in Vermont,” said Gannon. “Most of the people that I know that own guns aren’t part of that group.”
Gannon acknowledged that the issue has been a difficult one for him.
“Laura and I went out of our way to hear from constituents,” said Gannon. “We listened, I took their comments and the emails I received very seriously. This was a very difficult vote for me. My daughter was at the Boston Marathon bombing. I saw what mass violence can do. The hours after that, when I couldn’t get hold of her, were very scary for me. I’ve felt that. And I feel sorry for the other parents who weren’t so lucky. And they have rights too. That’s the thing that really frustrates me. Most people think there’s only one right and it’s the right to the Second Amendment but there are other rights, too, which need to be protected. Innocent people who are killed in these incidents have rights. They dismiss those rights. And that’s not right. We have these arguments about whether such and such a gun law is going to have any impact and really? We need bump stocks? For what purpose? For sport? Is sport more important than innocent life? If I had to stop skiing because it’s hurting people, I would.”
In a vote on the bill Friday, several parts of S. 55 were voted on separately in a legislative process called division of the question. Individual roll calls were taken on the issues of whether to ban bump stocks; whether to raise the minimum gun purchasing age to 21; whether to mandate background checks on all gun purchases; whether to ban the sale of ammunition magazines; and whether to advance the entire bill. Had one of the individual issues not garnered enough votes to pass, it would not have been included in the final bill. All passed.
On Friday, Sibilia voted in the negative to all questions except raising the age to 21, including advancing the bill overall; Gannon voted in the affirmative to all questions except for raising the age to 21, including advancing the bill overall.
On Tuesday, an amended version of S. 55 passed the House, with both Sibilia and Gannon voting in favor of the bill overall.
Language in the bill as passed by the House on Tuesday included exemptions to the age restriction for those in the military or law enforcement and those who complete a hunter safety course. With regard to high-capacity magazines, language in the bill as voted on Tuesday defines high-capacity magazines as more than 10 rounds of ammunition for a long gun or more than 15 rounds of ammunition for a hand gun. The bill grandfathers high-capacity magazines purchased before October 1, 2018 and also establishes an effective date of October 1, 2018 for the ban of bump stocks.
The bill is scheduled to go back to the Senate Thursday, March 29.