Massacres at the hands of crazed gunmen in 2012 left us Americans shaking our heads and searching our souls. It also emboldened gun control advocates with a renewed fervor to once-and-for-all enact laws that they hope could prevent gruesome mass shootings from happening again. In the aftermath of Newtown, the main action that the media, the public and the president have called for is a federal ban on assault weapons. Because that’s the most logical thing to do, right? Assault weapons, specifically the AR-15, were the weapons of choice by the mass killers of Aurora, Portland and Newtown. The weapon is obviously very popular among people hell-bent on murdering as many people as possible in as short of a time as possible. But does that mean that banning the AR-15 and other “assult-style” weapons would prevent mass shooting sprees in the future? Would an assault weapons ban, like Dianne Feinstein’s souped-up version of the 1994 ban, really get to the root of the problem and make killings like the ones at Virginia Tech or Columbine a thing of the past? If an unprecedented level of political capital lies at the hands of gun control advocates, should it first be put to use to enact just another federal ban on assault weapons?
The AR-15 was preceded by the M16, a fully-automatic rifle made for military purposes. It was first designed in the late 1950s and became widely used in the Vietnam war. It was re-named AR-15, modified to be a semi-automatic rifle for civilian consumption (all automatic weapons were federally banned in 1934), and began being sold to the public in 1963. It is estimated that over 3 million exist in the U.S. today. However, the idea that banning the manufacture and sale of this particular genre of weapon would somehow curb mass killings or render them impossible is a complete fantasy.
Although described as “high-powered” in reference to the high velocity of the rounds it can fire, the weapon arguably has more in common with a semi-automatic pistol than its military machine gun sister. Semi-automatic pistols like Glocks or Sig Sauers can fire dozens of rounds in succession without very much kick and with a much larger bullet than assault rifles. “There are a vast number of firearms that basically are semi-automatic,” said Michael Hammond of the Gun Owners of America. “A vast majority of firearms, in some way or another, either pistols or semi-automatic handguns or long guns, can fire more than one round without re-chambering.” It should also be noted that pistols, not assault rifles, were the weapons used in the Virginia Tech massacre, the largest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. If we hypothetically eradicated all assault weapons in this country, mass killings could still be carried out. The same way that an armed guard at Columbine High School was unable to stop two killers from murdering classmates and teachers, the then-standing federal assault weapons ban failed to prevent the killings of that day as well.
Do we then try to ban all semi-automatic weapons? Aside from that being nearly impossible in political terms, it would also not address the facts on gun ownership and gun murder. A study published by the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy shows that gun ownership does not correlate positively with homicide and gun prohibition does little to reduce it. On top of that, although the U.S. leads the world in gun ownership by far, it is 28th in the world for homicide by firearms per 100,000 people. Conversely, many countries with heavy restrictions on guns have much higher homicide rates than countries with less restrictions on guns.
So then what? A ban on high-capacity magazines? Sen. Feinstein’s proposed bill includes such a ban as well. It would be great if a limited magazine would stifle a killer mid-spree, but without limits on ammunition stockpiling, a killer needs only to drop an empty clip and reload it in seconds to resume carnage. A New Jersey rifle instructor explains, “People who compete [in shooting competitions] can often do well under 2 second reloads. [For] a guy who spends an afternoon working on it 2.5, seconds isn’t out of the question. Somebody familiar with guns but with not a lot of experience would probably do something close to 4-5 seconds.” Using this moment in history to merely force a killer to re-load more frequently than before would be a tremendous waste of an opportunity.
If your head is throbbing it’s because you’ve realized why this issue is so insanely complex and hard-fought. There are an innumerable range of influences on killers like Adam Lanza. Take away his AR-15 and he still has two pistols. Chop his magazine in half and he can still reload and continue. Ok, so take away the guns all-together (which could never happen in this country anyway) and maybe he doesn’t kill 20 children and six adults that day. But no law could remove his or any person’s desire to murder and no new assault weapons ban would make misguided youths feel differently about the lives of their victims.
A more effective use of this chance to make effective gun control policy would be to take every measure to make all firearms and bullets nearly impossible for mentally ill people to purchase. A longer waiting period for background checks in gun sales could prevent retailers from selling weapons to people with documented mental issues. Stricter penalties could be put in place for retailers and gun owners who give the mentally ill access to firearms. Such laws may have encouraged Nancy Lanza to keep better locks on her gun collection. Or we could finally strive to make quality mental healthcare more accessible to people than firearms. All of those would surely make it harder for potential killers to acquire their tools and reduce their desire use them.
Though there are many things to be fixed, the most glaring problem is that our culture is constantly reinforcing the idea that guns are good, cool, and manly. Commercial breaks for football games are riddled with ads for movies about good guys with guns, hyper-realistic first person shooter games are marketed by telling us that “there’s a soldier in all of us,” and ads for the very assault rifle used by Lanza tell us that owning an AR-15 is the key to redeeming lost manhood.
With this wide-open chance for meaningful gun control, instead of passing an updated version of an expired ban on assault weapons, our congress should take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to first make guns and ammo much harder to acquire by the mentally ill. The Seung-Hui Cho’s of this country should never be able to legally purchase any kind of weapon and their retailers should have every incentive to carry out thorough background checks. But the best preventative measure against gun violence would be to greatly reduce gun propaganda. If congress bans gun ads and restricts marketing of gun-centric entertainment then disturbed children and young adults will feel that exiting this world in a hail of bullets is not as glorious as it can appear.