The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday upheld a new state law prohibiting high-capacity magazines, affirming the validity of the state’s first major gun-control law.
The case is the court’s first since Governor Phil Scott signed the protection into law in April 2018, two months after authorities discovered alleged plans for a mass school shooting in Fair Haven, Vermont. The law, 13 VSA § 4021(a), bans people from manufacturing, possessing, transferring, selling, purchasing, receiving or importing large-capacity magazines in the state of Vermont. The law also sets limits for magazine sizes at 15 rounds for handguns and 10 rounds for long guns.
In February 2019, Max Misch allegedly traveled to a New Hampshire gun retailer, purchased two 30-round magazines for a rifle and transported them back into Vermont. Misch moved to dismiss his charges under the high-capacity prohibition and asserted that the law violates the right to bear arms under Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution. Misch argued that the right to bear arms is “express and without limitation,” that the statute “runs counter to the express requirements of the Vermont Constitution,” and that it should be presumed to be unconstitutional. The trial court denied his motion.
In affirming the trial court’s denial of Misch’s motion to dismiss, the court wrote “we conclude that the magazine ban is a reasonable regulation of the right of the people to bear arms for self-defense.”
The court’s 51-page opinion included a special emphasis on “historical context” and the historical regulation of guns and militia in Vermont. It dissected the state’s constitution, searching for the meaning of the right to “bear arms for the defense of … the State,” and the significance of the right of “the people” to do the same.
Although the historical record contains scant evidence of public debate concerning the right of individuals to keep or carry weapons for non-militia purposes, the status and control of state militias and the desirability of a standing national army were hotly debated throughout the states during the era when Vermont’s founders adopted the first Vermont Constitution.
The court also considered the state legislature’s aim of “prevent[ing] catastrophic harm to the people of Vermont” and determined that “there is no question that reducing the potential for injury and death in the event of a mass shooting is a proper Legislative purpose…”
“The Legislature was within its authority in concluding that the regulation promotes this purpose, and the statute leaves ample means for Vermonters to exercise their right to bear arms in self-defense,” wrote the court. It further concluded that—as understood in modern times—the right to possess firearms for self-defense is “tied to the defense of self, family, and home, and is not tied to prospective military use in the context of a state militia.”