Loaded Questions | A Native Vermonter Sets Out to Better Understand His Firearms-Friendly State

With gun violence elsewhere roiling the nation, Ben Hewitt sets out to better understand his firearms-friendly state.

By Ben Hewitt

Oct 20 2022


The author, Ben Hewitt, at his family’s rural homestead in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Though typically a rifle user, he wears the 9mm pistol he experimented with carrying in his daily life while working on this story.

Photo Credit : John Tully

On a hot Saturday afternoon in August 2021, I drove to the Enfield Outing Club in Enfield, New Hampshire, to learn about shooting guns. Specifically, I went there to learn about shooting handguns. I did this in part because handguns have always made me a little uncomfortable, a feeling I hoped could be mitigated, if not overcome, through greater competence and familiarity. I also went because although I don’t own a handgun myself, both of my teenage sons do. I enjoy shooting with them, and I thought I might enjoy it even more if I improved my skills.

I went also because I wanted to better understand the appeal of handguns. This may sound odd, given that I enjoy shooting myself (despite my unease), but I knew that for many, guns—and, it seemed to me, handguns in particular—represented something at once more meaningful and more personal than the simple pleasure of punching holes in tin cans with their kids.

Finally, I went because it had become obvious to me that a culture war was brewing in the heart of my beloved home state of Vermont. The evidence of this was not scant, and was most poignantly rendered by a dispute regarding a recently opened firearms training site in the once-sleepy town of Pawlet, which is located 25 miles south of Rutland, and is home to fewer than 1,500 people. There, a New Yorker named Daniel Banyai had purchased 30 acres of land and begun development of a tactical weapons training site. Banyai had been drawn to Vermont specifically because it allowed the unpermitted carrying of firearms, but he quickly found himself embroiled in a standoff with the town over zoning regulations, and, I think it’s fair to say, a cultural divide as intractable as the Taconic Mountains overlooking the town. The standoff turned ugly, which in turn attracted national media attention, and there were reports of neighbors installing video surveillance and acquiring bulletproof vests.

So yes, I think it’s clear that for some—perhaps many—of my fellow Vermonters, guns represented something more meaningful and personal than the pleasure of aerating beer cans with their kids. I had a sense of what some of these things might be, and I viewed them as creating a sort of hierarchical pyramid, one stacking atop the other, giving rise to something that transcends all the others. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call this “something”; I sensed that feeling was insufficient, and that perhaps idea or ideology or even identity was more accurate. And the way I understood it at the time, that idea is freedom, and it sat atop a pyramid constructed of competence, responsibility, security, and, quite frankly, power.

I’m not suggesting I was right about any of this, but it’s how I understood things at the time—even as I recognized that my understanding had been shaped at a distance and was therefore more rooted in assumptions and theory than lived experience. This recognition is what had compelled me to pay $130 to Spitfire Firearms Training to register for a class in handgun fundamentals. The two other students who’d registered for the day-long class had failed to materialize, and so I found myself standing atop the close-cropped grass of the Enfield Outing Club with not one but two instructors, a seemingly bottomless cache of ammo, and a dizzying array of guns at my disposal.

In essence, I was getting a private lesson in the basics of shooting handguns. But it soon became clear that I was getting something else, too, something I’d hoped for but wasn’t certain I’d find: an experiential window into a particular subset of gun culture that felt essential to truly understanding both the appeal of guns and, more broadly, how the conversation about firearms in Vermont (and everywhere else) has become so fraught. I wanted to understand not merely how the firearms culture in Vermont is changing, but also why, and what that means in a state that’s long maintained an anomalous relationship to guns. We have the highest rate of gun ownership in New England, along with some of the most permissive (or, depending on your perspective, constitutional) regulations. Yet despite our high rate of gun ownership, we have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the nation. We are a left-leaning state with a Republican governor who recently signed new restrictions into law.

Amid supporters of gun safety measures as well as those advocating for gun owners’ rights, Governor Phil Scott signs new firearms restrictions into law in 2018 at the Vermont State House.

Indeed, perhaps the only thing that’s not anomalous about Vermont’s relationship to guns is the fact that here, like pretty much everywhere else, people are buying them at record rates. In 2020, Vermont gun purchases triggered 57,965 background checks; the previous record for a single year stands at 41,550, recorded in 2018. Nationally, there were a record 39.7 million firearms sold in 2020; in 1999, when the FBI first began collecting data, there were 9.1 million firearm sales nationally. These numbers gain further resonance when considered in a broader context: In the U.S., there are currently 120.5 guns in private ownership for every 100 citizens. This is more than twice the next-highest country, which is Yemen, with 52.8 firearms per 100 citizens. Just to our north, in Canada, there are a relatively paltry 34.7 guns per 100 citizens.

As I would learn, the issues and arguments and emotions at play are so complex that the answers to my questions would prove evasive and, in some cases, elusive. At times, it felt as if I were slowly opening a set of nesting dolls; within each question resided another, and within that one, still another, and so on, with seemingly no end.

But on that August afternoon in Enfield, I knew none of this. My attention was elsewhere: on the gun in my hand, on the trigger under my finger, on the target before me. On my breath and my stance, on the noise and even on the smell—oil, metal, powder, sunburnt grass, my own sweat. And also, it must be said, on the way it felt when I ejected a depleted magazine, cleared the chamber, and saw that my shots were grouped in a tight cluster, evidence that I was—to my great surprise, and perhaps even to the surprise of my instructors—a pretty darn good shot.

How did I feel in those moments? I felt satisfied. I felt competent. I felt good. Really, there’s no other way to say it: I felt powerful.

To understand why many people love guns (and also why many don’t), it’s important to know about guns. Because I think many people’s aversion to firearms is, at least in part, rooted in their lack of familiarity with them. To the uninitiated, guns can seem mysterious and dangerous, and inherently unsafe—even unpredictable, as if they might go off at any time. Or at least that’s the way they seemed to me, having been raised in a family where guns were neither present nor much discussed.

The first gun I purchased was a single-shot .22 rifle. I bought it used, probably paying $60 or $70 for it. I got it because we kept livestock, and having a firearm on hand to deliver a mercy kill in the event of injury or terminal illness seemed like the responsible thing to do. I fired it just enough to become familiar with its operation, and then I left it to gather dust in a tucked-away corner of my office.

The second gun I bought was for my sons. They were 7 and 9 at the time, ages that seem just as startlingly young to me now as they did then, but probably won’t seem surprising to anyone raised in a hunting family, where learning to handle a firearm is often as much a part of childhood as learning to ride a bicycle. We were not a hunting family, but the boys—owing to being raised on a rural homestead where the taking of life for sustenance was both commonplace and unhidden, and perhaps also feeling some sort of primal instinct that presented as a deep fascination with hunting and survival—wanted nothing so much as to become the generation that changed that.

This did not seem like a passing fancy; already, at these tender ages, it had persisted for years. So, after much discussion, my wife, Penny, and I decided it was time. Yes, it was a difficult and uncomfortable decision, but we wanted to honor and support their interests, and we recognized that firearms are woven into the culture of rural Vermont, as commonplace as many of the other tools the people in our community rely on. To us, teaching our sons how to safely and respectfully operate a gun seemed like the correct thing to do.

What I remember most about that gun, which I bought new for $89, was how toylike it felt. It had a plastic stock, and being a youth model it was sized in miniature, almost as if it had been placed in a dryer at too high a temperature. I was alone when I bought it, and while everything about the transaction was perfectly legal, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something illicit. And worse yet, I was doing it on behalf of my children.

The preceding paragraph contains two truths about firearms that can be a bit surprising to the uninitiated. The first is just how inexpensive they can be. It’s possible to buy perfectly functional and entirely lethal firearms for approximately as much as it costs to fill the tank on your pickup truck.

The second is just how easy it is—in Vermont, at least—to lawfully procure a firearm, and not merely for one’s self, but for one’s child. The mandated background check generally doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and then it’s simply a matter of payment. For those of us on the right side of the law, buying a gun is a far less onerous process than buying a new car.

Vermont has always had some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. This is exemplified by the laws pertaining to carrying a firearm, either concealed or openly (for obvious reasons, this is generally a handgun). In Vermont, as in 23 other states, lawful gun owners of a certain age (ranging from 18 to 21) can legally carry a firearm without a permit. This is often referred to as “permitless carry” or “constitutional carry,” though it’s also been known as “Vermont carry,” since its origin in this state was March 4, 1791. The second state in the union to legalize permitless carry was Alaska, in 2003. The other states to adopt permitless carry have all done so since 2010.

Vermont’s reputation as a state where the right to bear arms is largely aligned with a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment took a hit in 2018, when Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, signed new gun regulations into law. The regulations included a ban on magazines over 10 rounds, more-restrictive private-transfer laws, and an increase in the minimum purchase age to 21 with exceptions for law enforcement and those who’ve passed hunter safety. They also outlawed so-called “bump stocks,” such as the one used by the shooter in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that claimed 58 lives. Bump stocks harness the energy of a gun’s recoil to effectively transform it into a fully automatic firearm.

The idea of a Republican governor signing more-restrictive gun regulations is nearly unthinkable in 21st-century America. But then, so too was the Vermont incident that Scott said had provoked “deep reflection” regarding his position on gun laws. In early 2018, an 18-year-old former student of Fair Haven Union High School was found in possession of a newly acquired shotgun, ammunition, books on the Columbine school shooting, a gas mask, a video recorder, and a journal detailing his plan, which he’d titled “The journal of an active shooter.” His plans were uncovered after he’d texted a friend that he 100 percent supported the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, in which 17 people were killed and 17 more wounded. Suddenly, Vermont’s proud relationship to guns, in which high rates of ownership and permissive laws had not translated into commensurate rates of violence, seemed at risk of fracture.

Depending on whom you talk to, Scott’s willingness to sign more-restrictive gun measures was a betrayal, an act of courage, a political calculation (Vermont is a politically progressive state, where Republican politicians are often rewarded for relatively centrist positions), a common-sense response to the situation at hand, or some combination of all four. He was immediately pilloried by the National Rifle Association, which had previously awarded him an “A” rating for statements made during his 2016 campaign in which he said he saw no need for new gun laws in Vermont. Upon his signing of the 2018 regulations, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch unloaded on Scott. “This governor in Vermont completely gave a one-finger salute to the Constitution and to gun owners. He is no friend of firearm owners, and I hope that all firearm owners remember this betrayal the next time he’s up for re-election.”

Of course, not everyone saw it that way, including Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, a nonprofit organization that lobbied extensively for the legislation. I visited Lasher-Sommers at her home in New Hampshire, just across the Vermont border, and only a few miles down the road from her childhood home, where, when she was 13, her abusive stepfather shot her in the back with a hunting rifle. It was not a mistake.

Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, a gun violence prevention organization founded in 2012.

It’s no surprise that being purposefully shot by another person would instill a visceral regard for the lethal power of firearms, as well as a belief that the world would be a safer place if guns were not so readily available. It’s more surprising that someone with these beliefs, who has spent a considerable portion of her adult life advocating for more restrictive gun legislation, would live in a household where guns are present. Among the first things I saw upon entering Lasher-Sommers’s house were the mounted heads of a deer and a moose shot by her partner, Bill; one of the last things I saw before leaving was the large, steel safe where he stores his firearms.

Like everyone I spoke with who advocates for gun legislation, Lasher-Sommers is quick to point out that she has no intention or desire to undermine anyone’s right to hunt or ability to obtain the firearms necessary for hunting. “To me, the ethos of hunting and fishing is something I respect,” she told me as we sat in her kitchen, eating ham sandwiches. “I mean, obviously, I have dead animals on my wall. But right now, deer in Vermont are safer than humans in Vermont.”

Before leaving, I asked Lasher-Sommers if there was a single piece of legislation that she felt would make a real difference in her quest to reduce gun violence. She answered without hesitation. “A registry. If we had licensing in every state, we wouldn’t have nearly so many problems.”

Do you think that’s a realistic goal in Vermont? I asked.

She shook her head. “You have to understand the culture where you live.” Another head shake. “And that’s not the culture where we live.”

Ihad the idea that I would carry a handgun, at least for a while. For about a week, I debated the merits of open versus concealed carry. I determined that while concealed carry could offer insights into how carrying affected me, open carry would also confer an understanding of how others behave around this new, gun-toting version of me, which I figured would ultimately be more interesting.

Journalistically speaking, this was not an original idea: In 2010, Harper’s Magazine published a story by the late Dan Baum titled “Happiness Is a Worn Gun,” in which the author routinely carried a handgun for several months. Carrying a gun gives you a sense of guardianship, even a kind of moral superiority, wrote Baum, who chose to conceal his gun. You are the vigilant one, the sheepdog watching the flock, the coiled wrath of God. To snatch out your gun and wave it around would not only invite catastrophe but also sacrifice that righteous high ground and embarrass you in the worst possible way. I don’t know how many gun carriers have read Robert Heinlein, but all of them can quote him: “An armed society is a polite society.”

I liked the idea of embodying qualities of vigilance and guardianship, and, if I’m to be entirely honest, at least a dash of moral superiority. So I holstered Rye’s 9mm Smith & Wesson to my belt, and for a few hours, I toted it around as I did my daily tasks at home, thinking that once I became more accustomed to it, I’d venture out into the wider world, my son’s pistol on display for all to see.

But even wearing it so close to home, my human interactions limited to my family, I felt supremely uncomfortable. The physical presence of the gun wasn’t so bad: It weighed less than three pounds, and while it wasn’t exactly unobtrusive, resting there against my right hip, it was unobtrusive enough, at least in a material sense. It struck me as being almost exactly as inconvenient as wearing one of those zippered pouches you sometimes see on people’s hips, and it seemed quite a bit more convenient than carrying a handbag.

Psychologically speaking, though, it was an entirely different story. Even though I’d handled and shot plenty of guns, and even though I’d worn a holstered gun while shooting, carrying a pistol while conducting the workaday business of my life felt—I don’t know—maybe “sinister” is the right word. There I was, washing dishes, the handle of my pistol visible in my peripheral vision. And there I was, strolling down to the mailbox to gather the day’s correspondence, my 9mm at the ready. And there I was again, standing just outside our front door, talking with my wife about nothing particularly important, but even if it had been, I’m not sure I’d have remembered it, because my attention was not on our conversation but rather on the gun. It was as if it exerted a gravitational pull on my mind, as if it were a magnet, and my attention a scrap of ferrous metal. No matter what else I was doing, my awareness felt stuck to the gun on my hip.

Would I have eventually become accustomed to it? I suspect so. And surely one could argue that my short experiment with open carry was colored by the fact that I was carrying at home, where I feel the least sense of threat. Perhaps if I’d dared venture beyond the boundaries of our peaceful rural property, into a world that is by all accounts becoming at once less predictable and more heavily armed, being in a state of perpetual armament would have felt more comforting. True, Vermont is by all accounts a good place to be if you’d rather not get shot. On average, about 75 Vermonters die by gunshot annually, giving it a rate of 11.6 deaths per 100,000 residents, which places it 37th nationally. And of these deaths, 86 percent are self-inflicted.

Yet no one can deny that we live in an era in which grade-school children are murdered in classrooms, and in which Black people are hunted in supermarkets. And as the 2018 Fair Haven Union High School incident illustrates, there’s no question that the possibility of gun violence on an entirely different scale exists in Vermont, too.

Some argue that is reason enough to stand up for our right to bear arms, and to fight regulations that impinge this right in any way, shape, or form. For not only do these regulations diminish our ability (and thus deny us the opportunity to fulfill our responsibility) to protect ourselves and others, they violate our basic constitutional rights as Americans, as enshrined in the Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. It’s not a complicated piece of language, and the phrase “shall not be infringed” is about as unambiguous as it gets.

On the other hand, it seems worth pointing out that the Second Amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791, when the arms in question were capable of firing approximately three rounds per minute and boasted an effective range of about 150 feet. For comparison’s sake, an AR-15 fitted with a bump stock is capable of firing upward of 700 rounds per minute, and has an effective range of 400 yards or more.

Yet it’s also true that the U.S. military’s capabilities have evolved significantly over the past 230 years, and if a well-regulated militia is indeed necessary to the security of a free state, does it not make sense that the right of the people to keep and bear arms should bestow upon them the right to keep and bear arms at least equal to those who might oppress them?

My quest to better understand the perspective of those who would answer yes to that question led me to VFW Post 648 in Rutland, Vermont, on a Sunday afternoon in June 2022, for the monthly meeting of the Gun Owners of Vermont, an organization that describes itself as “a non-partisan, pro-gun organization committed to a no-compromise position on firearm ownership rights.” GoVT, as it’s known, was formed in 1997 and works within Vermont to elect pro–Second Amendment politicians, as well as block any gun regulations it views as being unconstitutional. Given its originalist interpretation of the Constitution, this means any gun regulations.

I parked just down the block from the VFW, behind a pickup festooned with an array of pro-gun stickers. There was one that depicted a series of firearms standing on end in ascending order of size, from a small pistol to a large, semiautomatic tactical-style rifle, with the words My Family emblazoned beneath them. There was another that read Second Amendment: America’s Constitutional Homeland Security, and still another bearing the Greek phrase Molon Labe, along with its translation, Come and Take Them.

It was Father’s Day, and the VFW was quiet. There were two people at the bar drinking beer and eating hamburgers. The meeting took place in a room adjacent to the bar; there were 10 members present and one member who’d called in via Zoom. There was one woman. Everyone was white, and all were on the upper side of middle age, with the sole exception of the group’s president, Eric Davis, a tall, stocky, baseball hat–wearing fellow of 41 who owns and operates a small waste-management company.

Much in the way I’d been so acutely aware of Rye’s pistol on my hip, I was keenly aware of the strong likelihood that many people in the room were carrying guns. None were visible, and the VFW had posted a handwritten note on the door that read Firearms Not Allowed in the Building, but when Davis mentioned the sign and said, “I’m not going to ask how many of you guys are carrying,” there was a collective chuckle that sounded to me like a collective acknowledgement that yes, indeed, many were carrying guns.

The agenda for the meeting was loose, and the group spent much of the next two hours discussing the headwinds they faced, as well as the cultural and political changes they saw shaping the conversation around gun rights. When I asked outright if they were optimistic about the future of gun rights in Vermont, the answer was unambiguous: no. Or, at least, not very. “It’s tough,” said Davis, shaking his head. “Every time we go through a cycle of shootings, public opinion drifts further away.” Meanwhile, it’s become harder and harder for the group to identify and endorse viable political candidates. “The kind of people we want in office, number one, don’t have the stomach for that kind of thing and, number two, are working their tails off just to get by,” he said. “Good people don’t want to rule over fellow people, and mobilizing conservative and libertarian voters is kind of like herding cats.”

The last major political candidate GoVT officially endorsed was Governor Phil Scott, in 2016, the same man who signed significant gun legislation two years later. “He stood in a room with us and said, ‘I’m one of you guys,’” said Davis. “That man’s moral compass is a sock that blows around in the wind of public opinion.” There were more chuckles and murmurs of agreement.

Later, I called Davis at his home so I could try to better understand what GoVT hoped to accomplish by staking out a no-compromise position, and if there might be any form of compromise the group would deem acceptable. After all, even Davis had acknowledged that the tide seemed to be turning in favor of more restrictive legislation. Was an absolutist position still the most politically—not to mention culturally—savvy position to take? Might it not make sense to support something as seemingly innocuous as universal background checks, which according to most polling are favored by more than 90 percent of Americans?

The short answer, it seemed, was no.

“We just keep conceding more and more ground every time. It’s like getting pecked to death by a chicken,” said Davis. “Every time the other side gains something, they’re right back asking for more regulations.” In his view, and in the view of the organization, the focus on guns as the weapon of choice for most mass murderers is a convenient distraction from the underlying issue of mental health. “We don’t have a gun problem, we have a psychological problem, but it’s only guns that get the attention.” He pointed to a recent incident in his hometown, in which a man had broken into the home of the state labor commissioner and threatened the commissioner’s family with a knife. No one was injured, and the man was taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation. Later that night, after being released, he took his life. “If he’d been carrying a gun, the story would have been about guns. But since he was carrying a knife, it’s a mental health story. Think about it: If someone runs someone over with their car on purpose, it’s a mental health story, not a car story.”

I asked Davis what he would do personally if Vermont’s regulatory environment becomes less favorable to gun owners. Would he go so far as to leave the state, perhaps move to someplace like Alaska, or Wyoming, both among the most gun-friendly states in the U.S.? He sighed. “I threaten to all the time, but to be honest, I don’t think so. I was born and raised here. I have family here. I love this place.”

While I’d assumed he grew up in a family of gun people, that wasn’t the case. “There were guns in my family, but it wasn’t a big thing. I really got into guns in my late 20s,” he told me. “I like the technical aspects of it, and the skill, but I don’t hunt at all.”

Why? I asked.

“I just don’t like killing things.”

On the drive home from the GoVT meeting, I thought again about Vermont’s evolving relationship to guns. I thought about a conversation I’d had with the owner of our local gun store soon after the 2018 regulations had been announced but before they’d gone into effect, and I remembered him telling me how he’d never been busier, and how it was like this every time new regulations were imminent, or when an administration that was perceived as unfriendly to gun rights was preparing to take office.

I thought about Vermont’s changing demographics and the continuing privatization of its land base into ever-smaller and often posted parcels, and how that does not bode well for a thriving hunting culture and, by extension, a population of people with a working knowledge of firearms. Not as implements of carnage, or as symbols of (and the means to have) power over others, or even as the last line of defense against another human or tyrannical government, but first and foremost as tools to be treated with respect. I even thought about how my aversion to carrying a firearm is in some regards an aversion enabled by privilege. I live a peaceful life, in a peaceful community, and I belong to exactly none of the categories of people who disproportionately find themselves the victims of gun violence, and who might wish to arm themselves against threats that I, by and large, do not face. One might say that I can afford to make the choice not to carry a gun.

Young hunters head into the woods on a foggy early morning in Vermont, a state where more than 10 percent of residents hold hunting licenses.

Of course, I thought about the unbearably sad fact that for many parents—even in this peaceful little state, with one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the nation—the simple act of sending their children to school has become fraught with anxiety. At the meeting, I’d heard the oft-repeated argument that we protect our banks and politicians with guns; why wouldn’t we protect our children with guns, too? On its face, it’s a logical question, and yet I realized that I felt profoundly demoralized by it and by the simple fact that we live amid circumstances that make such an argument relevant. It seems as damning a statement about who we’ve become as any I can think of, and I wish I could tell you that I know how we become something different than a nation that suffers more mass shootings in a single year than there are days in a single year.

The truth is, I have no idea how to bring this story to a satisfying conclusion. Because the truth is, I don’t think there is a satisfying conclusion.

Here’s what I suspect will happen: We will lurch onward, both as a state, and as a nation. We will continue arguing over precisely who has the right to own those guns, what the capacities of those guns should be, and even where we’re allowed to carry them (indeed, in March 2022, Governor Scott signed a bill banning guns from hospitals). Those who advocate for an originalist reading of the Second Amendment will continue to gather in living rooms and VFWs and at shooting ranges to share their frustration at what they view as the continued erosion of their constitutional rights, while those who advocate for even more stringent regulations—such as the universal registry that Clai Lasher-Sommers hopes will someday come to pass—will have to be content with less consequential restrictions. Meanwhile, Vermonters will continue buying guns in record numbers, adding to the estimated 393 million firearms circulating among private citizens of this nation.

As for myself, I’ll continue to enjoy shooting with my sons, and perhaps even more so, given my increased proficiency. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be grateful to live in a place like Vermont, where, for the most part, we seem to have proven ourselves worthy of the great responsibility that comes from owning guns, and where, for the most part, we treat one another with respect. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, we are an armed state, and we are a polite state. I suppose that to me, it’s the latter that matters most.

Ben Hewitt’s “Life in the Kingdom” column will return in the January/February issue of Yankee.