State v. Misch

Citation256 A.3d 519
Decision Date19 February 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-266,19-266
Parties STATE of Vermont v. Max MISCH
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, Benjamin D. Battles, Solicitor General, and Ultan Doyle, David Boyd, and Eleanor L.P. Spottswood, Assistant Attorneys General, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Matthew Valerio, Defender General, Rebecca Turner, Appellate Defender, and Carly Orozco, Law Clerk (On the Brief), Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

David J. Haber, Unaffiliated Private Citizen, Burlington, Amicus Curiae.

Tristram J. Coffin, Jennifer McDonald and William T. Clark of Downs Rachlin Martin, PLLC, Burlington, Bridget C. Asay and Michael Donofrio of Stris & Maher LLP, Montpelier, J. Adam Skaggs of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, New York, New York, and Hannah Shearer of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, San Francisco, California, for Amici Curiae Giffords Law Center, Vermont Medical Society, and Gun Sense Vermont.

Jonathan T. Rose of Dunkiel Saunders Elliott Raubvogel & Hand, PLLC, Burlington, Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Loren L. Alikhan, Solicitor General, Caroline S. Van Zile, Deputy Solicitor General, and Sonya L. Lebsack, Assistant Attorney General, Washington, DC, for Amici Curiae District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.

O. Whitman Smith of Mickenberg, Dunn, Lachs & Smith, PLC, Burlington, and Eric Tirschwell, William J. Taylor, Jr., and Mark Anthony Frassetto of Everytown Law (On the Brief), New York, New York, for Amicus Curiae Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

Stephen Coteus of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, Montpelier, Jonathan E. Lowy and Kelly Sampson of Brady, Washington, DC, Mark D. Selwyn, Arthur W. Coviello, and Kevin O'Brien of Wilmerhale LLP, Palo Alto, California, Lauren Fletcher of Wilmerhale LLP, Boston, Massachusetts, and Jon C. Weingart of Wilmerhale LLP, Washington, DC, for Amici Curiae Brady and Brady Vermont.

Ethan A. Fenn, Law Office of Ethan A. Fenn, PLC, Burlington, Joseph G.S. Greenlee of Firearms Policy Coalition, Sacramento, California, David B. Kopel of Independence Institute, Denver, Colorado, and Ilya Shapiro and Trevor Burrus of Cato Institute, Washington, DC, for Amici Curiae Cato Institute, Firearms Policy Coalition, Firearms Policy Foundation, and Independence Institute.

Clark Bensen of Polidata LLC, Corinth, and David H. Thompson and Peter A. Patterson of Cooper & Kirk PLLC, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae Robert Kalinowski Jr.

PRESENT: Robinson, Eaton1 and Carroll, JJ., and Wesley and Pearson Supr. JJ. (Ret.), Specially Assigned


¶ 1. This case requires us to decide whether Vermont's ban on large-capacity magazines (LCMs), 13 V.S.A. § 4021(a), violates the right to bear arms under Chapter I, Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution.2 We conclude that the magazine ban is a reasonable regulation of the right of the people to bear arms for self-defense, and therefore affirm the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to dismiss the charges against him for allegedly violating § 4021(a).

¶ 2. Defendant was charged under 13 V.S.A. § 4021(a) with two counts of unlawfully possessing a large-capacity magazine. Section 4021 states, "[a] person shall not manufacture, possess, transfer, offer for sale, purchase, receive or import into this State a large capacity ammunition feeding device," defined as:

a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept ... more than 10 rounds of ammunition for a long gun; or ... more than 15 rounds of ammunition for a hand gun.

Id. § 4021(a), (e)(1). Defendant allegedly traveled to a New Hampshire retailer, purchased two thirty-round magazines for a rifle, and transported them back into Vermont. Defendant moved to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the statute unconstitutionally impinges on the right to bear arms in Article 16 and that the grandfather provision of § 4021 violates the Common Benefits Clause of Chapter I, Article 7 of the Vermont Constitution by treating differently people who possessed large-capacity magazines before April 11, 2018, and those who acquire large-capacity magazines after that date. See id. § 4021(c)(1) (stating that prohibition shall not apply to devices lawfully possessed on or before statute's effective date).

¶ 3. In June 2019, the trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss. The court described the two most common tests for determining the constitutionality of gun-control statutes in other jurisdictions: the "reasonableness test" used by the majority of states, and the two-prong test used by most federal circuit courts. The court concluded that § 4021 satisfies both tests. It also rejected defendant's argument under the Common Benefits Clause, reasoning that "[t]he grandfather provision allowed the Legislature to gradually curtail the availability of large-capacity magazines while lessening the burden on individuals that already possessed these devi[c]es," and that differential treatment based on the time a person acquired magazines "bears a reasonable and just relation to the governmental purpose of protecting the public from gun violence."

¶ 4. The trial court subsequently granted the partiesjoint motion for appeal on report by agreement pursuant to Vermont Rule of Appellate Procedure 5(a)(1), reporting two questions of law: whether § 4021 violates Chapter I, Article 16, and whether it violates Chapter I, Article 7. We accepted the appeal. The constitutionality of § 4021 is a pure question of law, which we review without deference to the trial court.3 See In re MVP Health Ins. Co., 2016 VT 111, ¶ 10, 203 Vt. 274, 155 A.3d 1207.

¶ 5. On appeal, the State argues that Article 16 establishes a limited right to bear arms in self-defense, urges the Court to adopt the "reasonable regulation" standard used by most other states to evaluate the constitutionality of regulations impacting the right to bear arms, and contends that regardless of the standard applied, § 4021 does not violate Article 16.4 Defendant argues that the right to bear arms under Article 16 is "express and without limitation," that the statute "runs counter to the express requirements of the Vermont Constitution," and that we should therefore presume it to be unconstitutional.

¶ 6. With respect to the Common Benefits Clause, on appeal defendant argues for the first time that § 4021 violates Article 7 because it exempts large-capacity magazines transferred to or possessed by government agencies and current and retired law-enforcement officers, thus giving preferential treatment to government officials over other groups. See 13 V.S.A. § 4021(d)(1)(A), (B), (D) (creating exceptions to prohibition of LCMs). Defendant does not pursue his argument that the grandfather exemption violates the Common Benefits Clause. In its reply brief, the State argues that defendant has waived his appeal as it relates to the grandfather clause, and that he failed to preserve his new claim relating to government officials.

¶ 7. We first determine that Article 16 protects a limited right to individual self-defense, and that the proper standard for Article 16 challenges is a reasonable-regulation test. Under this test, we will uphold a statute implicating the right to bear arms provided it is a reasonable exercise of the State's power to protect the public safety and welfare. Applying this standard, we conclude that § 4021 satisfies the reasonable-regulation test because the statute has a valid purpose of reducing the lethality of mass shootings, the Legislature was within its authority in concluding that the regulation promotes this purpose, and the statute leaves ample means for Vermonters to exercise their right to bear arms in self-defense.5

I. Legal Framework Under Article 16

¶ 8. Article 16 declares that "the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State."6 Vt. Const. ch. I, art. 16. We have never defined the scope of the right to bear arms, nor have we set forth a standard to determine whether a law infringes upon that right. These are our first two tasks.

¶ 9. When establishing a constitutional test, our goal is "to discover and protect the core value that gave life to" a constitutional provision, and "to give meaning to the text in light of contemporary experience." State v. Kirchoff, 156 Vt. 1, 6, 587 A.2d 988, 992 (1991). In doing so, we begin with the text of the provision, understood in its historical context, and we consider our own case law, the construction of similar provisions in other state constitutions, and empirical evidence if relevant. See Baker v. State, 170 Vt. 194, 206, 744 A.2d 864, 873 (1999) (identifying factors Court typically relies on in construing Vermont Constitution); see also State v. Jewett, 146 Vt. 221, 225-27, 500 A.2d 233, 236-37 (1985) (identifying text of constitutional provision, history surrounding its adoption, decisions from other states interpreting similar constitutional provisions, and economic and sociological materials as tools for interpreting provisions in the Vermont Constitution). With this guidance in mind, we consider the scope of the right to bear arms embodied in Article 16, and the proper test for evaluating the constitutionality of laws that potentially impinge on that right.

A. Scope of Right to Bear Arms

¶ 10. We conclude that Article 16 protects a right to bear arms in individual self-defense, subject to reasonable regulation. The constitutional text, considered in the historical context surrounding its enactment, is inconclusive as to the full scope and purpose of the right. To the extent that Article 16 established a right to bear arms for the purpose of serving in a state militia, that aspect of the Article 16...

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    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • January 20, 2023
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