Concerning the slippery slope
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference last week about legislation on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
The argument by Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs that limiting the number of rounds in a gun clip is “a slippery slope” that will eventually deprive gun owners of their “Second Amendment rights” is a mind-numbing cliché and a red herring.
The well-known phrase “The freedom to swing my arm ends where my neighbor’s nose begins,” and the cautionary ruling by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic” (Schenck v. United States in 1919), make it clear that in civil society we are often called upon to accept limits on individual freedoms in order to assure the safety and security of others.
Following the logic of Mr. Hughes’ objection, we might ask why have speed limits on our roads or limits on blood-alcohol content in driver sobriety tests. In both cases, the numbers are arbitrary. And in both cases the answer is obvious: While most drivers are prudent enough not to speed or drink immoderately, we create and enforce arbitrary limits to provide some measure of safety to ourselves and our fellow citizens against those who are reckless.
So why not have limits on the number of rounds of ammunition in a gun clip? Is it really going to ruin a sportsman’s outing to have only 10, nine or even just six rounds in the clip? And are we not, as a society, justified in asking for this small sacrifice of a presumed but by no means proven or demonstrated “Second Amendment right” to have 20 or 30 or more rounds in the clip, in order to provide some measure of restraint that gives us a little more security against mass slaughter, such as we have seen over and over again?
In fact, Vermont gun laws, considered some of the most liberal in the country, already include a restriction on the use of automatic weapons and limits on the number of rounds allowed in an ammunition clip.
According to the 2013 edition of the Vermont Guide to Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Laws: “It is illegal while hunting in Vermont to use, carry, or have in your possession a machine gun of any kind or description or an autoloading rifle with a magazine capacity of over 6 cartridges, except a .22-caliber rifle using rim fire cartridges” (www.eregulations.com/vermont/general-hunting-information/).
As for the sacred Second Amendment, the entire text — 27 words — is simple and to the point: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The explicit intent of the amendment was to equip “a well regulated Militia,” not to protect sportsmen’s rights. Besides, in 1791, when the amendment was ratified, the only guns available were single-shot flintlock muskets and pistols. A practiced shooter could get off between three and eight shots per minute. I’ll settle for that.
Michael Sherman is a writer, editor and baker who lives in Montpelier.