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Editorial: Vt.’s Carefully Crafted New Gun Laws a Salute to Common Sense

  • Bill supporters and gun rights activists listen as Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott speaks before signing the first significant gun restrictions bills in the state's history during a ceremony on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier, VT, Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

Published: 4/21/2018 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 4/21/2018 10:10:07 PM

The reaction, or overreaction, by Second Amendment activists to the modest firearms restrictions recently approved in Vermont is perhaps symptomatic of why the national gun debate is so intractable.

Staff writer Jordan Cuddemi’s recent backgrounder on what is actually contained in the three bills that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law April 11 indicated just how carefully the legislation had been crafted to balance public safety with the rights of gun owners.

Almost all of the most controversial provisions contain reasonable exceptions intended to make sure they are not unduly burdensome. For example, in raising the legal age to purchase long guns to 21, exceptions are made for individuals younger than that who have completed an approved hunter safety course and for those in law enforcement or the military. The new law also doesn’t affect possession, so someone who is underage could still possess a rifle or shotgun if it were a gift, for example. As it appears to us, the state’s traditional hunting culture has been respected even as this restriction has been imposed. (And it’s important to note that the minimum legal age to purchase handguns is already 21 under federal law.)

Likewise, the extension of background checks to private sales makes a sensible exception for transfers between immediate family members. New limits on high-capacity magazines, 10 rounds for rifles and 15 for handguns, do not affect those of larger capacity purchased prior to Oct. 1. These limits are already the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and four other plaintiffs challenging their constitutionality. The courts will have to sort that one out, but by our lights it’s hard to imagine any competent hunter needing more than 10 shots to bring down a deer, and even the homeowner whose theory of self-defense is “spray and pray” is almost certainly adequately equipped with a 15-round magazine for anything short of a reprise of the OK Corral (in which shootout, by the way, a total of about 30 shots are thought to have been fired by the nine participants). Bump stocks, which ramp up the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles, are banned entirely under the new law; we have yet to hear a convincing argument for their legitimate use.

Under a separate law, police will be allowed to temporarily remove firearms from a home when responding to domestic violence reports if the call results in an arrest or citation into court. At arraignment on the next business day, the court would order the weapon to be returned unless the judge imposed other conditions of release relating to firearms pending trial.

And under a different provision, prosecutors can ask a judge to issue an “extreme risk protection order” removing firearms from a person who is deemed, after a court hearing, a threat to themselves or others. This process includes a right to appeal.

How well these processes work in practice remains to be seen, but they do address a very real concern: an impulsive or “heat of the moment” act that can alter one or more lives tragically and permanently, compared with which the temporary deprivation of firearms cannot be regarded as a flagrant infringement on personal freedom.

Gun-rights activists heckled Scott during the bill-signing ceremony at the Statehouse, denouncing him as a “traitor” for reversing his previous opposition to new gun restrictions and threatening retribution at the polls. But as the saying goes, “Circumstances alter cases”: Scott’s about-face came in response to the arrest of a young man who allegedly was plotting a mass shooting at the high school in Fair Haven. If rationality prevailed on this issue, the evolution of Scott’s views in light of this altered circumstance would hardly be considered unusual, but it says something significant that in this age of mass shootings, even commonsense restrictions on firearms are cause for outrage among Second Amendment absolutists.

“This governor in Vermont completely gave a one-finger salute to the Constitution and to gun owners,” National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch said in typically elegant style. “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.”

We, on the other hand, urge voters to give a 21-gun salute to what Scott and the Legislature have wrought, and send a loud-and-clear message this fall that the days are over when gun rights trumped all others.

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