In New Lawsuit, Gun Group Targets Universal Background Checks And Age Limits

Aug 27, 2018

Vermont’s new gun law is under fresh legal fire from gun rights advocates, who are challenging the constitutionality of universal background checks, raising the legal age to purchase a gun to 21 years old and a ban on bump stocks.

Ed Cutler doesn’t have any children of his own. Under Vermont’s new gun law, if he wants to hand down his prized firearms collection to anyone other than an immediate family member, they’ll first need to pass a federal background check.

“I don’t see any reason why they should have to go through a background check to do something that is perfectly legal, and constitutionally protected,” Cutler said Monday.

Cutler is the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, which filed a civil suit in Windham County last week.

The group is asking a judge to declare the background check provision unconstitutional. And that isn’t the only part of Vermont’s gun law that the suit goes after.

Gun Owners of Vermont wants the court to jettison a provision that raises the legal age to purchase a gun to 21 years old and also do away with a ban on bump stocks.

"The burden when you're taking somebody's fundamental rights away is on the government to show why that should happen, and really not on the people to show why they get to keep their rights." — Michael Shane, lawyer for Gun Owners of Vermont

It’s the second legal challenge of Vermont’s gun statute since Gov. Phil Scott signed the law earlier this year. The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs filed suit in April, saying the ban on high-capacity magazines violates Vermonters’ right to bear arms.

In both cases, the complainants allege violations not of the Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, but of Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution.

“Article 16, in our belief, does provide greater protections — not only more than most states, but more than the federal Constitution. ... The burden when you’re taking somebody’s fundamental rights away is on the government to show why that should happen, and really not on the people to show why they get to keep their rights,” said Michael Shane, one of the lawyers representing Gun Owners of Vermont. 

Shane said the elected officials who enacted the gun law haven’t demonstrated that the new restrictions on gun ownership will have any bearing on public safety.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan disagrees.

“This law is about protecting children, and when you talk about protecting children, you have to talk about what steps Vermont’s willing to take,” Donovan said Monday.

In any case, Donovan said neither universal background checks nor raising the legal age to buy a gun will in any way strip people of the right to bear arms. Under the law, people under the age of 21 can purchase a gun only after passing a hunter safety course.

"These regulations do not impose an overly burdensome obstacle for law-abiding citizens to possess a firearm." — Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan

“These regulations do not impose an overly burdensome obstacle for law-abiding citizens to possess a firearm,” Donovan said.

According to Gun Owners of Vermont, Article 16 isn’t the only part of the state constitution the new law violates. Shane said Article 7, the so-called common benefits clause, is also in play.

“Article 7 does provide very robust protections, and doesn’t allow the government to single out groups to curtail their rights more severely than others without providing some kind of a justification,” Shane said.

Since the 21-year-old age limit effectively singles out 18- to 20-year-old citizens who might otherwise wish to purchase a firearm, Shane said the provision runs afoul of Article 7.