On Second Thought...

The Second Amendment and Mass Shootings

Feb 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm

It’s been decades since I fired an assault rifle. It was the standard weapon of the South African Defense Force. Intimidating. 

I was more at home with the British STEN, a World War II submachine gun. Mine, I was told, was made in the colonial Rhodesian railways machine shop. That was a keeper. 

The South African rifle’s magazine held 20 cartridges; the STEN, 32 rounds. Each could fire single shots or bursts on full automatic. 

STEN is an acronym using the first letters of the last names of the Brits who designed the gun — Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin — and “EN” for Enfield, the arms manufacturer.

AK-47 was named for Mikhail Kalashnikov, its Soviet designer.

The AR-18, designed by California’s ArmaLite, was famously used by the Irish Republican Army and lauded in their famous taunt, “God made Catholics but ArmaLite made us equal.”

My assault rifle and STEN were appropriate to their time and place. I mention that as background for my impatience with the reporting of mass shootings in our country.  

An assault rifle is a long weapon, typically fired from the shoulder; think AR-15 or AK-47. A submachine gun is a stubby, handheld weapon with a short barrel; think UZI or Tommy gun. Debate on reducing gun violence requires clear language in the news media; careless or willfully ignorant journalists promote blather, hyperbole and paranoia. Demonizing the Second Amendment, AR-15 or the NRA doesn’t help. 

Politicians worsen this with self-serving misstatements, guesswork and duplicity. Amplifying their perfidy is stenographic reporting without the wit to challenge the wildest and dumbest assertions. 

Continued news media repetition of “bans” reflects this mindlessness. So does stoking gun owners’ fears with talk of “confiscation,” “world government,” “globalism,” “Zionist plots,” etc. 

Our renewed debate is about more than school violence. The CDC says more than 33,000 people are shot to death annually, most of them suicides by handguns. Few criminals carry rifles or shotguns; handguns are used to kill the vast majority of the approximately 11,000 homicide victims each year.  

With an estimated 300 million firearms in this country and the freedom to buy more, there is no way to stop mass shootings (defined as four or more victims). 

Tinkering with the federal background check system won’t end mass shootings and I’m not optimistic about the Republican Congress adopting anything likely to reduce gun violence in an election year.

Still, despite my pessimism about the role of the news media in this fraught reality, here are some useful insights and ideas that I’ve read or heard since the latest high school massacre.

  • Leave the Second Amendment alone. It isn’t absolute. It allows for gun regulation.
  • Contrary to Trump’s serial lies about Democrats taking away the Second Amendment, this Supreme Court isn’t going to allow that. 
  • Effective efforts for reducing gun violence are likelier to come from states rather than Congress or the federal departments and agencies. 
  • Regulate private gun sales nationally. This “gun show” loophole skips background checks. 
  • Mandate a national 10-day waiting period for any just-purchased gun. Only someone with murderous intent would be in a bigger hurry. 
  • Raise the national minimum age to purchase any shotgun or rifle from 18 to 21. That’s already the age for handgun purchases. 
  • Set a national standard for how many guns and high-capacity magazines anyone may buy in a given period; use background checks to control that limit. 
  • Restrict the size and sale of large-capacity detachable rifle magazines. We’ve seen their contribution to lethality in recent mass shootings and killings.
  • Restrict the sale of such assault-style rifles as M16 and AK-47 clones. It’s been done before but Congress allowed that law to expire. True assault rifles — and other fully automatic weapons —are already restricted by federal laws.
  • Defining what an assault-style rifle is will be contentious. So will any debate over the maximum number of rounds any new detachable magazine may hold. Ten is a popular suggestion. Friends who hunt deer and wild boar don’t need 30 rounds to bring home dinner.
  • Ban the national sale of “bump stocks” that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire almost as rapidly as full automatics. The ATF is studying whether it has this authority. Trump’s order to the Justice Department to ban bump stocks only assures years of delay in courts. Confiscation probably is a non-starter in our legal and cultural environment.
  • Resist the urge to criminalize guns that were legal when they were purchased. 
  • Fealty to the NRA and its member-voters could prevent legislators from banning the sale of assault-style rifles or their detachable magazines. Congress refused to renew the 10-year ban in 2004. Pages A12-A13 in the Feb. 21 New York Times document NRA donations made to senators and representatives.  Allow local authorities to seize guns from people deemed mentally or emotionally dangerous. A judge would decide whether this would be temporary or permanent.
  • Resist calls to expand background checks to include men and women who allegedly suffer emotional or mental illness. This could stigmatize individuals unjustly and make unrealistic demands on mental health professionals. 
  • Reconsider calls to arm teachers. Students could be in greater danger if teachers respond to an active shooter by firing their own guns. Police have more firearms training than most teachers but miss a great many shots under stress. Those bullets go somewhere.
  • Arming teachers, coaches or school administrators could require them to shoot a student or former student. 
  • Armed school guards offer a false sense of security. Schools are so large today that the likelihood of any officer being able to stop a shooter anywhere on campus is remote.

My take on all of this? In this election year, only foolish Republican representatives and senators would bet their seats on Trump’s latest tweets about gun control. 

Morever, Republicans know students will return to class and outrage will fade; it always does. By November, the NRA’s ability to muster GOP votes and target campaign donations will matter more. 

Contact Ben L. Kaufman: [email protected]