John McClaughry: The wise decision of 1777

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, who is the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

In June of 1777 the people of “New Connecticut,” the land between New Hampshire and New York, learned that Congress had refused to admit their little republic into the union of the 13 colonies recently declared independent.

So on July 2 a group of frontier settlers met at the Old Meeting House in Windsor to promulgate a constitution for what was soon to become the independent republic of Vermont.

The first purpose of a constitution was to declare the rights of the people. For this they borrowed much of the elegant language of the Pennsylvania Constitution, including “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves of and the state.” That right has remained there, self-evident and unaltered, for 237 years (Chapter I, Article 16).

There was little controversy over this right until the dawn of the 20th century. In 1903 the Rutland City Council adopted an ordinance requiring a person wishing to carry a firearm within the city to obtain permission from the mayor or police chief. The Vermont Supreme Court, in a one-page decision, unanimously and unequivocally struck down the ordinance, saying, “The carrying of firearms for one’s defense is a fundamental right of a citizen. The ordinance is repugnant to the Constitution.” (State v. Rosenthal, 1903).
If the gun control advocates want to nullify the constitutional protection of self defense, there is a way to do it: persuade the Legislature and the voters to repeal Section 16 of the Constitution.

Another 85 years went by before some momentum built for localities to pass their own gun control laws. Defenders of Article 16 countered with a measure now known as the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights. This law states that “Except as provided by law, no town, city or incorporated village, by ordinance, resolution or other enactment, shall directly regulate hunting, fishing and trapping or the possession, ownership, transportation, transfer, sale, purchase, carrying, licensing or registration of traps, firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or ammunition.”

This act was approved by the Senate on a voice vote, and by the House on a 128-5 roll call. Gov. Madeleine Kunin signed it into law, and Howard Dean, then lieutenant governor, later made the unlikely boast that “I got it passed.”

Since then the partisans of gun control have repeatedly tried to undermine the law. In 2000, Montpelier residents voted for a charter change to regulate carrying a loaded firearm, but the Legislature declined to ratify it. Efforts in Barre and Rutland also failed.

A year ago Burlington City Council member Norm Blais proposed a city charter change to ban possession of certain (undefined) “semi-automatic assault weapons and multiple ammo clips in the City of Burlington,” with such ban to be enforced by substantial fines and civil forfeiture. After months of tumultuous hearings, the charter change committee offered three less sweeping measures for voter approval on Town Meeting Day (March 4).

The first measure prohibits possession of firearms on the property of first class liquor license businesses, including restaurants. That fact may be of interest to would-be assailants.

The second allows the police to seize firearms without a warrant, where it is alleged that the owner might have been or might be engaged in domestic abuse.

The third requires citizens to place their firearms in a “safe storage depository,” to make them effectively unusable for defense against a home invasion.

Any resolutions that are approved would then have to be ratified by the General Assembly, which approval would in effect exempt the city of Burlington from the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.

It will be argued that what was a self-evident right to the inhabitants of the Vermont frontier of 1777 is no longer applicable in the 21st century. To that one should reply, self-defense is always and everywhere a human right. Law-abiding Vermonters cannot be deprived of their constitutionally protected right to self defense, any more than they can be deprived of their constitutionally protected rights of speech, religion, assembly and press.

If the gun control advocates want to nullify the constitutional protection of self defense, there is a way to do it: persuade the Legislature and the voters to repeal Section 16 of the Constitution. Until that occurs, voters would do well to disapprove every ballot item designed to whittle away at any constitutionally protected human right.