Editor’s note: this originally appeared at Watchdog.org
MANCHESTER, Vt. — Following last week’s gun control discussions at the Democratic presidential debate, an anti-gun group in Vermont is holding secretive meetings to advance gun violence themes despite data showing the Green Mountain State is the safest in the nation.
According to an email sent out Wednesday from Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont, the gun control group is organizing “to present a strong case in each region that gun violence has a real, tangible effect on people in our community.”
The group is seeking gun-violence survivors who will tell their stories with support from doctors, educators, law enforcement officials and other community leaders. Gun Sense also plans to track and publicize gun-violence incidents.
The effort will culminate in a forthcoming “Gun Violence in Vermont: Statewide Report” to be released during the legislative session, along with an emotional video storytelling series.
To coordinate regionally, Gun Sense is holding a series of secretive meetings. However, a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Manchester Public Library changed abruptly on Monday after details of the event leaked to the public.
Braden’s Monday email alert to the group’s list told potential attendees to contact her for the revised whereabouts of the meeting: “I just want to let you know that our meeting location for tomorrow night has CHANGED. If you haven’t RSVPed but you’re thinking about coming, please e-mail me back, and I’ll give you the details about our new meeting location. Thanks! Ann.”
Braden did not return Watchdog’s request for comment on the meeting or its rescheduling.
Gregory Moschetti, the group’s treasurer, confirmed Gun Sense is conducting a series of regional meetings. “We’re having these meetings at various locations all around the state. So we had one here in the Brattleboro area on this past Saturday,” he said, adding the group would host about “half a dozen” meetings.
Second Amendment advocates blasted the group’s secrecy.
“This is how Gun Sense does their public meetings — it’s all secret. People are only notified if they’re on their preferred email list,” Bob DePino, vice president of Gun Owners of Vermont, told Watchdog.org.
DePino said he confirmed the meeting on Saturday by calling the Manchester Public Library. As of late as Monday morning, DePino and other gun advocates had hoped to attend Tuesday’s meeting to hear Gun Sense’s message.
“I called the library on Saturday and they confirmed, ‘Yep, it’s all set for Tuesday night.’ So it’s a legitimate event. We’re going to bring a few of our people down and we’ll have some facts and figures to present,” he said.
But when Watchdog contacted the library on Monday, staff member Kellie Morrison said Gun Sense did not have a meeting on the calendar for Tuesday night. Neither Morrison nor other staff would say if a meeting had been cancelled.
According to DePino, this is not the first time Gun Sense held secret meetings to discuss gun issues.
“Last time they had a big one with politicians. They had a private closed-off meeting at a winery. They had all the big-wigs in, including Lola Van Wagenen, Robert Redford’s ex-wife, who is a nationally known activist. These are all big-name people with lots of money and power,” he said.
That meeting, held in December, featured a who’s who of Vermont’s gun control power brokers, including Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Van Wagenen, founder of the political film production firm Clio Visualizing History. Van Wagenen is also a member of the board of directors for Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit organization with a mission of “educating for a sustainable future.”
Despite Gun Sense’s claim that Vermont has a gun violence problem, FBI crime statistics show the Green Mountain State is the safest in the nation. Vermont had 115 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2013, well below the national average of 368 violent crimes for every 100,000 people.
While FBI and census data show 42 percent of Vermont households have guns, the state’s gun murder rate per 100,000 people was 0.3 percent in 2010— the lowest in the nation. Moreover, Vermont guns rarely end up in the hands of criminals. Of 4,709 guns recovered in Massachusetts between the start of 2012 and the end of 2014, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced only 66 back to Vermont, according to firearms trace data.
DePino says those guns were likely stolen and would have been out of reach of universal background checks.
“There’s no background checks for a stolen gun. It’s not your gun to begin with,” he said. “… No amount of background checks on anybody’s part is going to stop a criminal from taking a gun over state lines.”
Despite Vermont’s status as the safest state in the nation, Gun Sense lobbied state lawmakers this year to pass universal background check legislation. The group hit massive pushback from Vermont sportsmen and gun owners before universal checks went down to stinging defeat.
Eddie Garcia, founder of the Vermont Citizens Defense League, said the new meetings indicate Gun Sense is preparing more gun control legislation for Vermont.
“They’re coming back. I guess they didn’t get beat up enough last time,” he said. “If they can’t see what happened last year, particularly at the public hearings at the state Senate regarding S.31 — which was the largest public turnout for a Senate hearing since the civil unions debate, and where we outnumbered them at least 4 to 1 — I don’t know what to tell them.”