Central Vermont Gunshow, Barre. February 7, 2015 (Credit: J.D. Thomason)

In a recent opinion piece published in the Burlington Free Press, Melissa Weinstein, an activist with Gun Sense, claims that she is “equal parts outraged and mystified” by Gov. Shumlin’s lack of support for Senate Bill S.31, a bill introducing new restrictions on Vermont’s existing gun laws. She goes on to justify the Gun Sense position by citing articles on violent crimes involving guns that have been reported in Vermont’s media. She also directly accuses Shumlin of failing to listen to Vermonters after.

Let’s dissect the issue in a bit more detail.

First, Vermont is rated by several federal agencies as one of the safest states in the nation. Both the FBI and ATF support this fact. Second, while 14,000 Vermonters may have signed a petition in support of restricting Vermont’s existing gun laws, that number does not constitute a majority of Vermonters and does not serve as any sort of indication that Gov. Shumlin, whose job is to represent the democratic will of the people, is ignoring Vermonters. In fact, if the turn-out at the February 10, 2015 hearing on S.31 is any indicator (where opponents to the S.31 easily outnumbered supporters 5 to 1), the majority of Vermonters do not support tightening the state’s gun laws. Third, it is a fact backed by data that tightened gun restrictions have virtually no effect on preventing gun crime. States such as California, New York and Michigan, with some of the most restrictive gun laws are also states that endure the highest numbers in gun-related violence. The reason: gun violence is a symptom of a deeper social problem – not the cause.

This argument is, at its core, a challenge to the principles of a democratic society.

The next problem in the debate is a problem of philosophy. From a scientific viewpoint, guns are inanimate objects. They have no inherent metaphysical properties. Yet many supporting “gun control” seem to think of guns as if these tools were the “Ring of Power” from Tolkien’s novels which compel those who might possess them to slowly become more sinister, regardless of their own free will. (Similarly, those opposing “gun control” seem to think that having no gun laws somehow magically protects society from tyrannical government.) Clearly, these are largely theological assumptions which shouldn’t serve as the basis for new laws.

More specifically, Weinstein and her Gun Sense colleagues are essentially arguing that, because a few individuals may misuse their tools, we should govern based on exceptions to the rule. This argument is, at its core, a challenge to the principles of a democratic society. If applied, where do such ‘guilty-until-proven-innocent’ laws stop? Should we impose on law-abiding Vermonters through the use of ‘pre-emptive strike’ legislation that empowers government and disempowers its citizens by stripping them of their privacy? To see the contradiction in the pro-S.31 argument, we might ask why the legislation isn’t also advocating for laws that forbid police officers from maintaining their anonymity when wearing masks at public demonstrations – a very real issue highlighted during recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

The real question is a question of trust: Do we trust the people of the United States and the residents of Vermont to behave responsibly or not? The logic of S.31 makes two fundamentally anti-democratic assumptions: one, that the people of Vermont cannot be trusted to respect existing laws and, two, that those who have no respect for existing laws will suddenly be compelled to do so because several politicians signed their names to some new pieces of paper. If this is anything, it is naive arrogance.

The problem of gun violence is much deeper and cannot be legislated away. What can be legislated away, however, is the core value of a democratic society which places its ultimate trust and faith in the people. As Thomas Jefferson once said: “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

By J.D. Thomason