By Anne Galloway, VTDigger
The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and four other plaintiffs are suing the state over a ban on large capacity gun magazines.
The federation, a gun association, several sporting goods stores and a woman from Bethel allege that a new law putting a cap on magazines violates the rights of gun owners under the Vermont Constitution.
The new state statute, signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Scott March 30, bans the sale, possession or transfer of long-gun magazines with a capacity greater than 10 rounds and handgun magazines with a capacity greater than 15 rounds. The cap does not apply to law enforcement.
The ban on possession exempts magazines purchased or otherwise obtained before October 1, 2018, when the ban comes into effect.
Last month at a State House rally, gun rights activists threatened to sue the state over the provision before lawmakers finalized passage and Scott agreed to the measure.
On April 18, they made good on that threat.
The lawsuit asks the Washington County Superior Court to halt the enforcement of the new law.
Chris Bradley, the president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, which has 16,000 members, said in a statement that popular rifles and pistols on the market come “standard with magazines in excess of these new limits.”
The standard capacity for the popular AR-15 semi-automatic firearm, for example, is 30 rounds; for pistols, the number is 17 rounds. Thousands of Vermonters own high-capacity magazines, Bradley said, which are “commonly used for competitive sport shooting throughout the state, and many citizens also rely on them for home defense.”
The new law violates Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution, which protects citizens’ right to bear arms, Bradley said, and “prevents the state from requiring law-abiding Vermonters to defend themselves and their families with sub-standard firearm magazines.”
“We are confident the courts are going to quickly strike down this obviously unconstitutional ban,” Bradley said.
The lawsuit was filed in Washington County Superior Court in Montpelier Wednesday morning, April 18.
Brady Toensing, a lawyer from Charlotte with the Washington, D.C.-based firm DiGenova and Toensing is representing the plaintiffs, which include the federation, the Vermont State Rifle & Pistol Association, Powderhorn Outdoor Sports, Locust Creek Outfitters and Leah Stewart, a gun owner from Bethel. Toensing declined to comment.
The plaintiffs are seeking an order from Judge Mary Miles Teachout that would compel the state to refrain from enforcing the ban and allow gun owners and businesses to buy and own high capacity magazines.
The defendants include Matthew Birmingham, the director of the Vermont State Police; TJ Donovan, the Vermont attorney general; Sarah George, state’s attorney for Chittenden County and David Cahill, state’s attorney for Windsor County.
“Our office expected this lawsuit,” wrote Donovan in a statement Wednesday. “We are prepared and will vigorously defend Vermont law.”
The plaintiffs says the law is “unenforceable” because there is no tracking system in place for magazines. The high-capacity rounds bear no markings that indicate the date of manufacture, for example.
As a result, gun owners can simply go to New Hampshire to buy magazines and circumvent the law, Toensing writes.
During testimony on the bill, the Attorney General’s Office said the ban would be difficult to enforce. Nevertheless, Donovan said he still supported the provision.
The magazine ban is also an “impediment to self-defense,” the plaintiffs say, in rural Vermont where law enforcement response times can be slow, especially late at night when state police troopers are off duty.
In addition, the gun shops and the Vermont Rifle and Pistol Association say they will be hurt financially by the ban.
The dealers will no longer be able to sell the “standard” size magazines to customers in Vermont. That important part of their local businesses will suffer because they anticipate Vermonters will go out of state to buy the devices and ammunition.
The Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the Vermont Rifle and Pistol Association sponsor clinics for high power rifle use and state and National Rifle Association shooting championships.
The lawsuit says the ban will curb participation in the shooting matches, limit the number of competitors from other states, and ultimately result in less income for the clubs.
The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action is backing the lawsuit. The gun rights organization said in a statement that the magazines banned under the Vermont law are “owned by millions of law-abiding Americans.”
Chris Cox, executive director of the institute, said in a statement that “nearly half of all magazines in the nation would now be deemed ‘large capacity’ by Vermont.”
“Vermont claims its new ban will advance public safety, but we know from other states that have experimented with this type of misguided ban that violent criminals are not going to adhere to the ban,” Cox said. “The only people really harmed by the ban are the law-abiding citizens who will now be forced to defend themselves, their families, and their homes from violent attack by using sub-standard ammunition magazines. We are pleased to have been able to support the plaintiffs in this fight to vindicate their rights under the Vermont Constitution, and we expect the Vermont Courts to swiftly strike down this plainly unconstitutional ban.”
In a response to a request for comment about whether the NRA would be paying legal bills for the case, Toensing said in an email that he doesn’t “answer questions about [his] fees.”