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Ben & Jerry, icons of a culture that embraces gun rights as much as it does hippies and bourgie ice cream.


Vermont’s Long, Strange Trip to Gun-Rights Paradise

Why the Green Mountain State and its singular history are to thank for new laws that allow the concealed carry of guns without a permit.

Last January, the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee held an open hearing to consider SB 116, a bill that would have repealed licensing requirements for carrying a concealed handgun and enshrined into law a principle that has come to be known by gun advocates as “constitutional carry.” Anticipating a crowd, the Judiciary Committee staged the hearing in the Statehouse’s Representatives Hall, where the five presiding senators patiently listened to a full afternoon of passionate and sometimes shrill testimony. In urging passage of the bill, some supporters described the vindictiveness of small-town police chiefs, framed uninhibited gun ownership as a way to prevent domestic violence and rape, and delivered history lessons on the gun-hating ways of Adolf Hitler. But many of the bill’s backers opted for a more reassuring form of persuasion. Permitless carry was nothing radical, they said, and to see how it could work, one only needed to do was look a scant 60 or so miles to the west.

“Vermont, for over 220 years, has never had permits, has never had registration, and has never had any serious gun control laws,” Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, told the New Hampshire senators. “And for 220 years, Vermont has been the safest place in this nation and one of the safest places in the world.”

SB 116 bill would go on to pass the state Senate and House and land on the desk of Governor Maggie Hassan, who — citing law enforcement concerns and the state’s already-permissive concealed-carry law — killed it with a veto. But in Maine, an almost identical bill advanced through that state’s legislature and was just signed into law; it will go into effect this fall. Since 2003, Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming, and Kansas have enacted their own permitless-carry laws, and this year, a dozen other state legislatures discussed and, in some cases, took preliminary votes on similar proposals.

But it’s Vermont that is permitless carry’s true crucible. Despite being a deep-blue state known for jam bands and hippie ice cream, it is alone in never having regulated concealed carry to begin with. For decades, as the concealed-carry movement won a string of victories around the country, Vermont served as the ultimate example of what unfettered gun ownership could bring — a wooded Valhalla where peace and prosperity were ostensibly guaranteed not by restrictive laws but by responsible citizens and their firearms. Long before permitless carry was branded as “constitutional carry,” groups like Gun Owners of America were championing a “Vermont-style CCW law” as a national solution, and activists were anticipating the day when what was then known simply as “Vermont Carry” would spread across the land.

Vermont gun-rights advocates are proud of their state’s legacy, and they tend to have a strong sense of history. Ask one why Vermont has never enacted a concealed-carry law, and he or she will likely begin with a story about Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. In the 1770s, New York’s provincial government had eyes on Vermont’s lands. Allen and his brother Ira led a campaign to keep them at bay. Their efforts involved more high-flown rhetoric than actual bloodshed (“unless the people of Guilford peacefully submit to the authority of Vermont, the town shall be made as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah”), but a show of force was often necessary.

“Everybody in that era believed that every homestead had to have a gun to protect themselves,” John McClaughry, founder of the free-market–advocate Ethan Allen Institute and a former Republican state senator tells The Trace. “And everyone believed that the militia was important to defend their rights against the government in Albany.” When Vermont declared itself an independent republic in 1777, its new constitution included strong gun-rights language — “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State” — and that article appears prominently in the bylaws of groups like Cutler’s Gun Owners of Vermont, which is “dedicated to a no-compromise position against gun control.”

But Vermont’s constitution doesn’t fully explain its permissive gun policies. Its right-to-bear-arms provision is not only identical to that of Pennsylvania, but nearly impossible to distinguish from those in many other early state constitutions. Kentucky’s 1792 constitution also protects “the right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State,” but 21 years after that constitution’s enactment, Kentucky passed the nation’s first concealed-carry law. By 1846, seven other southern and midwestern states had concealed-carry laws on the books, and in the post–Civil War era, other states — especially in the former Confederacy — approved their own broad gun restrictions, often as a way to disarm African-Americans.

“It is one of the great ironies of American history that the states commonly thought of today as ‘redneck country’ (areas where gun ownership, hunting, and rifle racks in pickup trucks are unremarkable) were in the forefront of laws regulating the concealed carrying of deadly weapons,” the historian Clayton Cramer writes in Concealed Weapons Laws of the Early Republic. “Another common characteristic is that all were slave states when they first passed these laws.”

Vermont — removed from slavery and Reconstruction — remained aloof from such regulations. When rural, sparsely populated Western territories like Montana and Wyoming enacted laws in the second half of the 1800s prohibiting the carrying of weapons to try to quell frontier violence, rural, sparsely populated Vermont saw little reason to follow suit.

Vermont’s constitution doesn’t fully explain its permissive gun policies. Its right-to-bear-arms provision is not only identical to that of Pennsylvania, but nearly impossible to distinguish from those in many other early state constitutions.

By the early 20th century, as northeastern states began to enact their own concealed-carry regulations, the Vermont city of Rutland instituted an ordinance prohibiting the carrying of weapons “without permission of the mayor or chief of police, in writing.” In 1903, a man named Andrew Rosenthal was arrested under the ordinance for carrying a loaded pistol. His case made it to the Vermont Supreme Court.

“Vermont was run by a bunch of gray old Republicans, and the idea that you’d want to regulate someone’s firearms just did not compute,” McClaughry says. The Court’s response was unanimous and definitive: Rutland’s ordinance was ruled “repugnant to the Constitution and the laws of the state,” a notably more absolutist position than the U.S. Supreme Court had taken in 1897 when it declared “the right of the people to keep and bear arms … is not infringed by law prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons.”

The ruling dissuaded other municipalities from attempting to pass their own firearm restrictions, and Vermont’s remote, homogenous, and relatively pacific culture once again insulated it from prevailing trends in gun regulations elsewhere. Unlike New York, which instituted the Sullivan Act in 1911, which made gun permits a requirement, Vermont’s power brokers weren’t clamoring to disarm Italians, anarchists, or other political machines. Unlike the many states that adopted the “Uniform Act to Regulate the Sale and Possession of Firearms” in the 1920s and 1930s, Vermonters saw little Prohibition-era violence. Even in 1968, when the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. led to the passage of new federal and state gun control laws, the issue was a nonstarter in the Green Mountain State. When legislators merely floated the idea of gun control regulations that year, a Statehouse rally squashed a potential bill before it could even take shape.

In the 1980s, the appeal of “Vermont carry” for gun-rights advocates only got stronger as new laws went onto the books elsewhere. In 1981, the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove enacted the nation’s most restrictive gun statutes, which prohibited the sale and possession of handguns. Other municipalities, among them San Francisco, soon followed with their own bans on private handguns.

“It was extremely alarming to the NRA,” says Robert Spitzer, a gun policy historian and the author of Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights. “They began to turn their attention to lobbying in state legislatures and pushing them to pass preemption laws, which bar localities from enacting laws that are mores strict than the existing state laws. It was ‘the gun grabbers are coming to take your guns away, this is the apocalyptical battle that we have to fight.’”

The NRA’s effort was hugely successful. In 1979, two years before the passage of the Morton Grove law, only seven states had full or partial preemption laws. By 1989, that number had grown to 21.

It was around the same time that a push for new gun safety measures finally arrived in Vermont in earnest. “What was happening is a few towns were actually passing ordinances on the carrying of firearms,” says Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont. “We had a lot of people moving in from out of state, a lot of them were that trust-fund hippie element, and they were definitely anti-gun.” The state legislature, in response, introduced a preemption bill that would come to be called the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights. It stated bluntly, “no town, city or incorporated village … shall directly regulate hunting, fishing and trapping or the possession, ownership, transportation, transfer, sale, purchase, carrying, licensing or registration of traps, firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or ammunition.” It was signed into law in May 1988 by Democratic governor Madeline Kunin and championed by her lieutenant governor, a liberal, Park Avenue–raised Democrat named Howard Dean. Two years later, Bernie Sanders (lately in the news for his relative moderation on gun policy) won Vermont’s lone House seat in a rout against an opponent who favored an assault-weapon ban.

In the decades since, Vermont has remained hostile to nearly all forms of gun control, even as the rest of its politics has swung further to the left. In 1989, after the Stockton Schoolyard shootings, Governor Kunin called a press conference to torpedo an incipient effort at gun regulations. In 1994, as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban progressed through Congress, gun owners and hunters flocked to a hearing at the Capitol to make sure a call for gun sales reporting never got out of committee. In 2000, following the Columbine shooting, the state legislature turned down a requested charter change by residents of Montpelier, who had voted to regulate the carrying of loaded firearms. In 2013, following the Newtown shooting, the state legislature once again nixed a proposed charter change, this time from the residents of Burlington. (The proposed regulations had so incensed some of the state’s gun advocates that a firing range near Burlington refused to allow the city’s police officers to shoot there.)

Then, this year, as “Vermont Carry” continued to spread across the country, Vermont itself actually passed new gun laws. A new gun safety group, Gun Sense Vermont, advanced several measures, and, after a bitter legislative fight, managed to push two of them through: One makes it a crime for felons to possess firearms (which merely empowers state and local law enforcement to enforce the existing federal prohibition); the other requires mental health professionals to report the names of individuals deemed a potential threat to themselves or others to a federal database.

While Vermont’s dominant gun advocates crowed that the bill would erode the state’s tradition, cooler heads didn’t see its passage as a reason for much concern. The laws were so innocuous, in fact, that McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Insitute told me that he would have considered supporting them had they not been put forward by Gun Sense. Vermont is still a long way from Morton Grove. “This is the weirdest state in the world,” Cutler says. “Up here, even the liberals have guns.”

[Photo by Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]