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Kalish: Responsible Gun Laws

Last week the United States Supreme Court declined an appeal from a 7th Circuit ruling upholding an assault weapons ban in Highland Park, Illinois. Put simply: Highland Park banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; the 7th Circuit said the 2nd Amendment permits them to do that... and the Supreme Court said, “We’re not getting involved.” That decision opens the door for cities and states across the country who want to strengthen their gun laws.

Many argue that, 2nd Amendment aside, Vermonters can’t do anything about our gun laws, because of our state constitution. Chapter 1, Article 16 says, “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence [sic] of themselves and the State - and as standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.”

In short, Vermonters didn’t mince words about the potential threat of a standing army and our right to protect ourselves from that threat.

However, Article 16 should not be read to preclude us from revisiting our gun laws or from making them more effective. Nor should we assume that doing so means “the destruction of Vermont’s way of life.”

Vermont’s current gun laws are famous for requiring no background checks, no safety standards for handguns, no permits, no registration, no licensing. In Vermont, you can even buy a sawed-off shotgun and armor-piercing bullets.

True, our violent crime rates are low. But, because we have almost no laws governing the sale and purchase of guns, Vermont has become a destination state for those seeking weapons. It’s been reported that Vermont is part of a guns-for-heroin pipeline. A Massachusetts ATF agent told the Boston Globe that they “have consistently seen guns originating in Vermont used as currency in the interstate drug trade.”

The gun-owning Vermonters I know are responsible, ethical people. They hunt. They shoot for sport. Their family traditions include teaching each new generation to shoot. And they are the first to say that owning and using a gun is a responsibility. And that leads me to wonder how – as a state – we might become a more responsible neighbor.

Our state’s founders feared a standing army that could, by dint of its military fire power, terrorize a civilian population. How ironic that today that same military-style fire power is terrorizing the civilian population through our stream of commerce.

Editor's Note, 4:20 p.m. Dec. 18, 2015 The recorded version of this commentary includes the inaccurate claim that a gun used in November terror attacks in Paris is thought to have passed through Vermont. That claim was based on an Associated Press story that has since been corrected. The gun in question has been in possession of the Mexican government since March, officials said. The inaccurate claim has been deleted from the transcript above.

Julie Kalish is a Vermont attorney and Lecturer at Dartmouth College in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. She is a board member for Vermont ACLU. She lives in Norwich.
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