Editorial: Don’t Fear Sensible Gun Regulations

Sunday, February 15, 2015
The crowd that turned out at the Vermont Statehouse last week for a public hearing on gun control legislation was reported to be the largest since the debate over civil unions in 2000. Based on media accounts, we’d also like to nominate it for entertaining the most preposterous “slippery-slope” argument since that time.

As you may recall, opponents warned then that extending the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage to same sex couples through civil unions would undermine the institution of marriage itself and ultimately shake the very pillars of Western civilization. To the contrary, in the 15 years since then, as gay marriage has gradually become the law of the land (or at least a big chunk of it), the yearning of gay couples to make the personal commitment to one another that is solemnized through marriage has been nothing short of inspiring. And we know of no evidence that the marriages of heterosexual couples have in any way been diminished as a result.

Which brings us the modest package of gun control measures that was the subject of Tuesday night’s public hearing held jointly by the Senate Judiciary and Health and Welfare committees. Hundreds of Vermonters turned out, most of them against the measure. Opponents asserted that if the bill becomes law, it would eventually lead to gun registration and then to outright government confiscation of firearms, in violation of the Second Amendment. The flavor of this argument was distilled in the comment of Bob Shea, of Fairfax, who warned that “Mao, Hitler, Stalin and Castro all instituted gun confiscation before they killed their own people. We are headed on a slippery slope toward confiscation.”

What are the enormities in this bill that would allegedly result in murderous tyranny on a vast 20th-century scale? Extending existing background checks to private gun sales, with a broad exemption for transactions within an immediate family; making it a state as well as a federal crime for violent felons to possess firearms, so that state prosecutors and police could enforce existing gun laws; and requiring the state to report to the National Instant Background Check System people who have been determined by a court to pose a danger to themselves or others by reason of mental illness, or who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial as a result of mental illness.

Which is to say that the bill, of which Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor County, is one of three sponsors, simply proposes common-sense measures designed to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are already forbidden to possess them.

Which brings us back to the “background checks equal the Holocaust” formulation. To have force, a slippery-slope argument must articulate a rational chain of causation that leads inevitably downward from one step to another before finally ending in disaster. Opponents have not done that, nor can they. Gun restrictions that are already in place have not curbed lawful gun ownership in the least, nor is there any evidence that Congress, the courts and the executive branch are doing, or are intending to do, anything but treat the Second Amendment with abject deference.

Indeed, the most likely outcome of passing this legislation is that absolutely nothing will happen to infringe on the constitutional rights of gun owners, and that some number of persons already disqualified from gun ownership will not be able to arm themselves so easily.

Nonetheless, it’s questionable whether lawmakers have any appetite to tread where political angels such as Gov. Peter Shumlin fear to. It’s always easier to duck issues than to confront a virulent minority. Some legislators may even recall that doing the right thing on civil unions cost a few brave souls their seats in the next election. What they may not recall is that few seem to have regretted their choice.

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