- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 20, 2018

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Last week’s deadly Florida high school shooting and a Vermont teenager’s arrest in what officials consider a near-miss on a high school shooting are giving a boost to gun control efforts in the state Legislature following years of the otherwise liberal state’s steadfast refusal to regulate gun ownership.

On Tuesday, several hundred gun control advocates rallied on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Inside, Republicans who had long resisted the idea of any form of gun restriction were rethinking that position.

Republican Rep. Don Turner, the House minority leader, said his caucus had recently formed a committee to look at possible ways to regulate guns and prevent violence. He said no one wanted to see another school child hurt or killed.

“We get that. It’s scary for us. It’s scary for parents. We need to at least open the dialogue,” said Turner, who noted that over the weekend he heard from constituents who did not want to see any gun law changes.

Vermont has a long history of gun ownership and low gun crime. Despite being considered one of the most liberal states, efforts in recent years to regulate gun ownership have failed.

There are a number of pieces of legislation pending in the Statehouse. One would prevent people from possessing firearms if courts ruled they posed threat to themselves or others. Another would require background checks for most gun transfers.

Last Thursday’s arrest of an 18-year-old former Fair Haven Union High School student who had bought a shotgun and ammunition and kept a journal called “Diary of An Active Shooter” prompted Republican Gov. Phil Scott to say it was time for Vermont to consider “gun safety” as part of a broader effort to reduce violence.

Scott’s comments on Friday came a day after he told a SevenDays weekly newspaper reporter who asked about gun legislation following the Parkland, Florida, shooting that he didn’t think changes to the state’s gun laws were needed.

Scott changed his mind after Vermont state police arrested Jack Sawyer, of Poultney, and charged him with attempted aggravated murder and other offenses that, if convicted, could send him to prison for life. Police determined Sawyer, a former Fair Haven student who had recently been released from a mental health facility in Maine, had bought a shotgun and four boxes of ammunition.

Police say Sawyer also read a book about the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999, in which two students killed 12 other students and a teacher before killing themselves.

Police were alerted to Sawyer’s case after some of his friends said he was making threats against his school. A girl in Poughkeepsie, New York, showed a school resource officer some of the threats Sawyer made via social media. The officer alerted Vermont police, and Sawyer was arrested.

Sawyer pleaded not guilty and was being held without bail.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office is defending Sawyer, said there are a lot of unproved allegations.

“I have a sense that this case is a lot different than initially portrayed,” Valerio said.

Democratic state Sen. Richard Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he felt the governor’s change in attitude toward gun laws was a big step toward the passage of gun legislation.

Seventeen people died in the Florida shooting. The teenage killer’s lawyer has said he is sad, mournful and remorseful and has called him “a broken human being.”

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