THETFORD, Vt. — The valley was booming.
Gunfire from the Upper Valley Fish and Game Club, neighbors said, drowned out peepers in spring and thrushes in summer, hollowing the peace in this corner of rural Vermont. The noise was different from 20 years ago — a barrage of high-powered, rapid-fire guns that, as one neighbor upset by the noise put it, created a “Fallujah” soundtrack on Five Corners Road.
All over town, people picked sides in a dispute that started two years ago and devolved quickly into the vitriolic rhetoric that defines just about any disagreement about guns in the country these days. Club members said neighbors were angling to shut down the club. Neighbors said they only wanted a few restrictions.
The dispute might have gone the way of Washington’s battles over gun regulation — with frustration giving way to bitterness and deadlock.
But somehow, some way, the town’s Selectboard — including a contractor, a school bus driver, a teacher, a plumber, and a pizza shop owner — in late February forged an unexpected compromise between the two camps.
“You can’t make everyone happy,” said Stuart Rogers, the Selectboard chairman. “God, you find that out fast in this job. But that’s governance. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
And so, if all goes as planned, for the first time in 40 years, the guns will fall quiet in the forested patch of poplars and pines on some Saturdays and some Sundays, and in the early morning hours and after twilight. Fully automatic and large-caliber guns won’t be allowed.
David Goodrich, the club president, said a few details remain to be ironed out before the club signs off on the contract that the Selectboard has already signed; the town leases the land to the club and the new rules are built into that agreement. But Goodrich said he expects a good resolution.
“Each side had pretty strong positions that were pretty polar opposite,” he said. With the contract, “we are somewhere in the middle, though we might not be perfectly centered.”
“Both the club and the board want and intend for it to work out,” he said.
The compromise is remarkable coming here in Vermont, a state that is politically liberal in many ways but has some of the least restrictive gun regulations in the country. It’s one of eight states that allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, opposed the Brady bill, voted to allow guns on Amtrak, and supported giving broad federal immunity to gun manufacturers. (As a presidential candidate, he has said he supports repealing the law.)
The belief in largely unfettered access to guns has been deeply ingrained in Vermont since before the state was known by that name, dating at least to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys’ armed pushback in the 1770s against encroaching New Yorkers, followed later with a clause in the state constitution that provides “the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State.”
With traditionally low homicide rates, and with hunting still a way of putting food on the table for some families, there is wide acceptance of the gun culture here.
That heritage loomed over the debate about the gun range, situated on land carved from the town forest that the Upper Valley Fish and Game Club historically has leased for $1 a year. And the idea of limits of any kind on the range struck some as ludicrous.
“It’s gotten to a point where there is a continued affront on traditional Vermont values and lifestyle,” said Bill Huff, a retired airline pilot and financial planner who opposed limits on the range.
Huff, a member of the club, said he moved to Vermont so he could “enjoy fishing and hunting and four-wheeling and ice fishing and all that goes with being an outdoors person.”
The new restrictions, he said, threaten “our rights and lifestyle” — something, he said, that Vermonters have “enjoyed for centuries.”
Ted Levin, a biologist and nature writer who owns a hillside house overlooking the range, said the state’s traditional values were never under threat from people like him who supported restrictions on shooting.
“I don’t hunt; I don’t own guns. But I don’t post my property,” Levin said, meaning he allows hunters on his property. “I’m totally in support of hunting.’’ He said his concerns about the gun range were limited to the increased noise: “You have property and you want to enjoy it.”
The field and woods rented by the fish and game club are former farmland that the town took ownership of in 1941. There are four shooting targets and a rustic cabin that members gather in during warm months.
The club signed its first 20-year lease with the town in 1978, and then another. The lease was up for renewal last year, which was when neighbors came forward asking the Selectboard to clamp down.
The road to compromise was not easy or elegant.
Meetings went late into the night. Two neighbors nearly came to blows. Martha Dean, a lawyer who practices in Avon, Conn., and a former Republican candidate for governor there, waded into the debate on the side of the gun club.
Rogers said Dean described herself as associated with the National Rifle Association (the NRA said it was not involved in the case), and told townspeople that the neighbors were seeking to oust the club and make a grab for the land, according to residents who attended the meeting.
“Her attitude was so over the top,” said Laurie French, whose family has lived on Five Corners Road for five generations. “I just thought: ‘Wow. This is just off the wall.’ ”
Dean, who grew up in Vermont, referred questions to Goodrich, but said, “I never said I worked for or was associated with the NRA.”
French, who works as a gardener, grew up with the families who started the club. Her son supports the club. And she doesn’t like change, which has come in recent years to Thetford with the arrival of more professionals working at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
But Dean’s entry into the fray, she said, helped push her to the side of neighbors eager for change.
“I don’t feel that a Sunday off without shooting is a huge compromise,” French said.
In the heat of things, neighbors consulted a lawyer as well.
Rogers is a hunter. He understands the need for a range. Without it, he said, guns are more likely to be used in backyards. He also appreciates what the club does for the town — hosting an annual fishing derby and providing hunter safety courses.
But he said he was elected to do a job.
“I went into it with an open enough viewpoint to listen to everyone,” he said.
A show of true neutrality was important, he said. He edited documents to read “firearms” rather than “weapons — the feeling being that weapons felt more like they were deliberately being used for harm to individuals, and firearms is more of the sporting term,” said Rogers, a gray-bearded contractor who wears a ruby stud earring and is also the animal control officer in town.
He did his homework because facts matter, he said. He studied gun range acoustics. Some sounds, he learned, can’t be minimized.
In the end, Rogers and his fellow board members voted unanimously on the new regulations for the range.
The deal disappointed some neighbors who’d hoped the board would go further, and also those who see no need for limits on the range. But the board did find a middle way on an issue where there often is none.
Goodrich, a retired firefighter who grew up in neighboring Norwich, said a few last details — which he declined to explain — remain to be worked out. And he expects that will require more of the sort of negotiation that’s gotten the two sides this far.
“There is a lot of give and take, and sometimes you give back something you’ve gotten,” he said.
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.