Vermont's Right Not to Bear Arms

Vermonters have long stood behind their right to bear arms, boasting some of the highest rates of gun ownership and the least restrictive gun laws in the country. Currently the only state that allows its citizens to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, it may soon be the first to require a permit for the unarmed in its ranks. In what could be the most extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment's tricky syntax yet, a Vermont state legislator recently introduced a bill requiring all unarmed Vermont citizens to pay $500 for the privilege of not owning a gun.

Under the bill, adults who choose not to own a weapon would be required to register their name, address, Social Security number, and driver's license number with the state. Those of military age, with the exception of police and members of the armed forces, would be required to pay the $500 fine. Representative Fred Maslack proposed the bill not to encourage Vermonters to protect themselves against crime (Vermont's crime rate is very low), but to demand that citizens do their part in defense of liberty. According to Maslack, "There is a legitimate government interest in knowing who is prepared to defend the state should they be asked to do so."

But defend the state against what? Vermonters, Maslack told me, have a constitutional obligation to respond to "any situation that might arise." Federal tyranny? Yup. Abuse of power by other states? Sure. "There could be a natural disaster that would send thousands of people into the state." Maslack's implication seems to be that in the event of such an influx, Vermonters ought to be able to shoot anyone coming over the border on sight. Good thing New Hampshire's tsunami season is short.

It's true that the Vermont constitution states explicitly that "the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State" and that those persons "conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms" shall be required to "pay such equivalent." And Vermont does have a proud history of citizen militias, going back to the days of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. But citizens' armies have not been needed in Vermont since the early days of this country's founding, when they were occasionally called upon to send New York State tax collectors back over the state line. To refresh Vermonters' dormant militia expertise, Maslack has also introduced a bill requiring compulsory military training as a prerequisite for a high school diploma in the state.

More important to Maslack than safeguarding against excesses of government, though, is upholding the letter of the law. With Vermont in the spotlight over gay marriage, Maslack says members of his state should look more carefully at the rights and obligations spelled out in the Constitution. If homosexual couples can sue the state because they are denied the benefits that accompany legal marriage, he says, then surely someone can sue over the unheeded militia mandate. "You can't ignore the duties and invoke the privileges."

Given that Second Amendment enthusiasts speak as much about individual freedom as they do about the joys of hunting, it's unlikely that a bill requiring mandatory gun ownership will find a groundswell of support. (Determining whether everyone possessed a gun would require some form of gun registration, something NRA types staunchly oppose.) Still, all this begs the question: If Vermont recognizes gay marriage, and gays are barred from serving in the military, would Vermonters in same-sex marriages be exempt from militia duty?