Do dueling rallies miss the mark?
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | February 22,2013
For the third time in this young year, the Statehouse is likely to be awash Saturday with colorful signs declaring what the U.S. Constitution truly says, along with chants and impassioned speeches.
It will be the site of the Vermonters for the Second Amendment Rally, on the same day as the national Day of Resistance organized by the likes of rightwingnews.com and theteaparty.net. Although the announcement of the local rally mentioned the Day of Resistance, it did not say the two were directly connected.
This rally follows on the heels of the pro-gun-control rally at the Statehouse last weekend, which was itself in response to the first pro-gun rally last month.
So many rallies, one right after the other, begs the question: Is this form of debate even effective at getting the public’s message across, whatever that may be?
The latest installment in the gun debate started after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 27 people, including 20 young children, were killed. In response, Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, proposed legislation in January that would prohibit “the manufacture, possession or transfer of semi-automatic assault weapons,” as well as “large-capacity ammunition-feeding devices,” or magazines.
Later that month, a rally was held at the Statehouse opposing the bill as part of national Gun Appreciation Day. Less than 24 hours later, the weekly Seven Days broke the news that Baruth was going to kill the bill.
The fact that the first rally appeared to get results might be one reason for their proliferation. But not so fast.
Baruth said his decision to withdraw the assault-weapons ban had less to do with sentiment outside the building than with the opinions of the lawmakers inside it. Baruth said Thursday that he notified Senate colleagues on the morning of the rally that he planned to pull the bill, before the event made evening news headlines.
“It had less to do with (the rally) and more to do with the fact that, so far as I can see, I was the only one in the building that supported the ban,” Baruth said.
David Plazek teaches political science at Johnson State College. He said rallies are an integral part of democracy and are vital social movements for the public to bring about real change in their country’s laws.
While a rally is to some extent theater, Plazek said it does give the public a chance to voice a concern and that politicians have to listen to that concern or they don’t stay politicians. He said rallies tend to be most effective when people also contact their representatives to voice their opposition or support of a certain topic.
“For democracy to be vibrant, it requires an active citizenry,” Plazek said.
He said what is interesting about the gun debate is that it was essentially over, with the gun supporters coming out the winners, until Newtown. Plazek said organizations that are devoted to zero change in gun policies tend to be coordinated from the top with well-funded organizations such as the National Rifle Association. He questions the expanse of “pro-gun people” or whether it’s just a case of a better-organized outfit getting its message out.
The Vermont Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs, whose executive director will be speaking at Saturday’s rally, is the state association of the NRA.
One issue with the frequency of these rallies is that they could give diminishing returns. Plazek said it’s possible that having rally after rally could cause a “fire alarm” or “boy who cries wolf” effect, where the message starts to get tuned out as the rallies become commonplace.
Anthony Commo organized Saturday’s rally and the first rally last month. He said there is some concern about the event losing its voice among all the other demonstrations.
Still, Commo said this gathering is not in response to last week’s pro-gun-control rally but to newly proposed gun legislation, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex Junction, that would limit the number of rounds in ammunition clips and require background checks on more sales. He expects the latest rally to draw more than the roughly 250 who attended the first one last month.
The organizer of last weekend’s gathering, Danielle LaFleur Brooks, said she has no plans to hold another counter-rally but couldn’t speak for any other pro-gun-regulation advocates.
Eric Blaisdell covers police, courts and crime for The Times Argus. Staff writer Peter Hirschfeld contributed to this report.