Pro-gun advocates rallied at the Vermont capitol over the weekend to protest a recently passed slate of gun laws, including a bill to implement universal background checks for all firearms purchases, raise the minimum gun purchase age to 21 years old, and ban the sale of bump stocks and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The magazine restriction has raised particularly strong opposition among the gun rights crowd, which has characterized it as an unnecessary measure filled with loopholes. But at the gathering in Montpelier on Saturday, pro-gun activists also worked to actively exploit those loopholes by giving out free high-capacity magazines.
The scene followed a broader pattern of firearms enthusiasts criticizing gun control laws for being ineffective while subverting them out in the open. The laws could never work, the protest suggested, because we won’t let them.
“It’s a classic case of gun rights hypocrisy,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who’s written five books on gun policy. “They’re publicly doing everything they can to undermine the law.”
Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, kicked off the rally by blasting lawmakers for supporting what he called an “unenforceable” magazine ban. State law enforcement officials, including the attorney general, have also stated that the provision could be difficult to enforce.
Minutes after Bradley spoke, Rob Curtis, the executive editor of Recoil Magazine, a gun lifestyle publication, began handing out 1,200 30-round magazines to the crowd. Curtis gave first priority to people under 21, who will be prohibited from purchasing ammunition magazines when the new law goes into effect, Bradley told HuffPost in an interview. Curtis did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Although the new law, S. 55, will prohibit the sale or transfer of any rifle magazine over 10 rounds and any handgun magazine over 15 rounds, it will not apply to the possession of any devices that are legally owned when the law takes effect. That means all of the high-capacity magazines given out on Saturday will remain legal.
The grandfathering of certain devices is a broader point of contention in the debate over bans on firearms or related accessories — some state laws have banned possession outright, regardless of when equipment was acquired. Grandfather clauses can make magazine restrictions particularly hard to enforce because it’s almost impossible to know which devices were legally obtained before the ban.
“Magazines are not serial-numbered, they are not marked with a date of manufacture, they may not even be marked with a manufacturer’s mark at all,” Bradley said.
Bradley also noted that Vermont neighbors New Hampshire, where high-capacity magazines remain legal. Although it would be illegal to import outlawed devices across the border, once they make it to Vermont, law enforcement might not be able to differentiate between illegal magazines purchased after the ban and legal pre-ban magazines.
“We’re trying to tell law-abiding Vermonters to abide by this, and many, many of them will, but that doesn’t mean that all of them will.”
Supporters of S. 55 admit there will be challenges in enforcing the magazine ban, but they maintain that it will succeed in limiting access to high-capacity magazines that can radically increase the lethality of a weapon.
“We’re trying to tell law-abiding Vermonters to abide by this, and many, many of them will, but that doesn’t mean that all of them will,” said state Sen. Philip Baruth, who carries both Democratic and Progressive party labels.
Baruth likened the effort to his previous campaign to prohibit cellphone use while driving. Although critics of that measure also argued it would be impossible to enforce, he said that over time, many Vermonters have come to accept that you shouldn’t be on the phone when you’re in the car, whether out of respect for the law or concern for public safety. Baruth hopes gun owners will show a similar willingness to comply with new laws.
S. 55 will also allow authorities to crack down on vendors caught selling high-capacity magazines. Although the 1,200 new 30-round magazines given out over the weekend will make it a bit harder to keep tabs on these sorts of devices in general, over time, Baruth is confident the law will make them less ubiquitous and more difficult to get.
And that’s exactly what Bradley is afraid of.
“What they’re really hoping for is that down the road, as magazines start breaking, we’re not going to be able to replace them,” he said. “So, my generation’s protected, what about my son’s generation and my grandson’s generation?”
Bradley argued that limiting magazine capacity infringes on a gun owner’s right to self-defense. He said the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs is in the process of assembling a legal team to figure out the next step forward. Previous legal challenges against high-capacity magazine bans have failed in federal court, so it’s unclear what sort of recourse gun supporters will have in Vermont.
But Saturday’s magazine handout should serve as a reminder that some pro-gun advocates have little interest in engaging in a good-faith debate about the effectiveness of gun control. Vermont gun enthusiasts insisted that banning high-capacity magazines wouldn’t work, and were willing to sabotage the effort to help make their case.
“It essentially shows their contempt for the law,” said SUNY Cortland professor Spitzer.
To Baruth, Saturday’s show of resistance is proof that Vermont’s gun culture has become more radicalized over the past 25 years.
“We used to be a rural deer-hunting culture, and gun manufacturers have sort of piggybacked on that to wed people to the idea that military-style weaponry is akin to the traditional Vermont lifestyle, and it’s not,” he said.
A Wyoming-based firearms accessory manufacturer reportedly sent its magazines to Vermont for Saturday’s giveaway. Baruth argued that companies like this have a financial interest in preserving the sort of political environment in which people are free to be as “extreme in your gun rights position as possible.”
“Nobody grew up in a Vermont where you could kill 58 people ... in under 10 minutes,” Baruth said, referring to the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October. The gunman in that incident was equipped with around a dozen semi-automatic rifles outfitted with 100-round magazines and bump stocks, which allowed him to simulate automatic fire as he rained down more than 1,100 rounds on concertgoers attending a country music festival.
When S. 55 goes into effect, Vermont will join eight states and Washington, D.C., in restricting magazines of various sizes. The bill was part of a broader package of gun control legislation debated in the wake of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The day after that massacre, a Vermont teenager was arrested on charges that he was planning a similar shooting at a high school in Fair Haven, Vermont. The suspect in that case, an 18-year-old, was legally able to purchase a shotgun, but would not be under the new state law.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) has said he plans to sign S. 55 and other recently passed gun bills into law. In a statement last week, he said he understood that firearms advocates were “disappointed,” but maintained that the gun control measures were worthwhile initiatives.
“I think at the end of the day, they’ll soon learn that what we have proposed, what’s being passed at this time, doesn’t intrude upon the 2nd Amendment,” he said. “It doesn’t take away guns, and I believe that we will get accustomed to the new normal, which is trying to address this underlying violence that we are seeing across the nation.”