The day after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado supermarket, President Joe Biden called on Congress to move quickly to toughen the country’s gun laws. He also called Officer Eric Talley, who died in the line of duty, “an American hero.” (March 23)
Joe Biden wants to re-make America’s roads, bridges and airports — and why not? But let’s add something else to that list:
How about remaking America’s gun laws?
One of the most striking footnotes to the latest mass shooting in Colorado is that it took place on the same day that the Biden administration began rolling out a plan to spend $3 trillion to upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
That $3 trillion price tag is not a misprint. America wants to put a major dent in the federal budget — and expand the deficit — to finally bring the nation’s transit, water and energy systems into the 21st century after years of neglect. But the irony of devoting so many financial resources to fix America’s infrastructure could not be more tragic when viewed against the backdrop of the latest bloody rampage in Colorado — and also last week’s killings in Georgia. The same nation that desperately wants to modernize its rusty and creaky transportation and sewer systems still is not desperate enough to spend the time or money to solve a problem that is as old as the Bible.
We want to build ultra-modern bullet trains, yet we still allow far too many bullets to end the lives of ordinary Americans. We have the brains to send high-tech machines to Mars — and beyond. But we refuse to take high-tech killing machines out of the hands of nuts who commit mass murder.
Put another way: How can we build a modern society when mass murder can occur at any moment because some angry guy — yes, it’s generally men, often wrestling mental problems — can get his hands on a military-grade rifle or handgun?
Hours after the latest massacre in Colorado, President Joe Biden announced that he wants to revisit America’s decade’s long debate over guns.
But is he going far enough?
I don’t think so.
If Biden can spend $3 trillion on potholes and bridges, he should fork over a fraction of that to buy back every assault rifle in America.
Too long and too bloody
You know the story of gun violence in our nation. It is long and bloody, with a string of recent datelines as ordinary as life itself.
From an elementary school in Connecticut to an African-American church in South Carolina and a gay nightclub in Orlando, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a newspaper office in Annapolis and an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, the carnage of mass murder has become America’s new normal. No place is sacred. No place is safe. We have become all too accustomed to this bloodshed, offering “thoughts and prayers” but no solutions.
Now this list includes spas and massage parlors near Atlanta and a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. Eighteen more victims, gunned down by men described by police as harboring deep reservoirs of anger, yet also managing to get their hands on the kinds of high-powered, rapid-firing, semi-automatic guns that are designed for soldiers on a battlefield. In the latest killings, the victims ranged from Asian women who came to this country seeking better lives to a police officer who left behind seven children.
Who’s next? More teachers and students? More grocery workers? More low-wage immigrants? More importantly, what will it take to shock America into taking the necessary action to stop this bloodshed?
The problem begins with how we define mass shootings.
The FBI and the Congressional Research Service both say a mass shooting occurs only when four people die. By that definition, eight mass shootings have taken place so far this year — roughly one every week. Forty-eight people perished. Dozens more were wounded.
Such carnage is certainly shocking. But, with such a narrow definition of a mass shooting, the figures are misleading.
Consider, for example, the far more troubling portrait of America’s bloody landscape offered by the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research service, and the crowdsourced Mass Shooting Tracker.
Both groups define a mass shooting as occurring anytime at least four people are shot. It doesn’t matter if the victims die or are wounded. What’s important is that one shooter started firing indiscriminately at ordinary people. By this definition, America has been the setting for 107 mass shootings so far this year, with 172 people dying and another 325 wounded.
Assault rifles in America
No matter how many people were killed or wounded, most of these shootings have a common connection — the type of weapon used. In almost every case, the weapon of choice for a mass killer is a semi-automatic, military-style rifle. We call them “assault rifles” — and for good reason. They were designed for American soldiers to assault the enemy.
What’s striking about these sorts of rifles is that they are light, accurate and are equipped with magazines that can carry large numbers of bullets. All a killer needs to do is point and shoot. Re-loading is as easy as pushing a button that expels an empty magazine and pushing a fully loaded magazine back into the gun. This columnist has fired these kinds of weapons. They’re like toys. In a matter of seconds, I fired off 15 rounds.
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Gun rights advocates claim they should be able to own and even carry these sorts of weapons anywhere, along with smaller, semi-automatic pistols that are primarily designed for police officers.
Citing the Second Amendment’s vague, out-dated claim about “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” and that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” many gun rights supporters say they need assault rifles for self-defense.
Maybe so. But what if the proliferation of such weapons is turning America into a killing zone for angry nut jobs? And should America allow white supremacist groups to carry these weapons when they hold protest marches? Imagine trying to be a police officer at such an event, knowing that the people you are trying to monitor are carrying weapons that are far more powerful than the Glock pistol in your holster.
Where is Congress?
This brings us back to the Biden administration and Congress.
Most of the firms that produce assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols have contracts with the Pentagon and with police departments across America. Fine. We want our nation’s military and cops to be equipped with modern weapons.
But why should civilians have these guns? The Biden administration, along with Congressional Democrats, have revived a plan to ban the sale of assault rifles and some semi-automatic pistols to civilians.
Republicans already oppose such legislation. And some moderate Democrats, fearing they might be defeated in elections, may get cold feet, fearing blow-back from the National Rifle Association. Many Democrats still point to the defeat of New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio after he pushed through a ban on assault rifles in the early 1990s. Many also claim that the Republican take over of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, after decades of being in the hapless minority, was due largely to the Congressional ban on assault weapons.
But if anything, elections are about principles. It’s time for Democrats to re-discover that gun control is worth fighting for.
Banning all sales of assault rifles might have even prevented the killers at the Atlanta massage parlors and spas and at the Boulder grocery from getting their hands on these rapid-firing guns. Both of the alleged killers reportedly purchased their guns shortly before setting off on their killing sprees.
But even if sales of assault weapons are banned, such a law still won’t solve the gun problem entirely. Simply put, America is awash in military-style guns. Stopping the sale of new assault firearms is not enough. Something needs to be done about the assault weapons still in circulation.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a reliable gauge of trends in gun manufacturing, reported in 2015 that about 8.5 million assault weapons had been sold in the U.S. between 1990 and 2012. Since then, gun makers have sold about 2 million assault rifles each year.
That means that America is home to more than 24 million assault rifles. Each time Congress threatens to enact stiffer gun control laws, sales of assault rifles increase.
One solution would be to declare all 24 million of these guns illegal. In other words, if you owned one, you would be violating the law.
But such a provision is unfair — possibly un-Constitutional. It’s also unworkable. Cops and other law enforcement officers don’t have enough time to track down all 24 million of these guns.
Another plan is to buy back these guns — at a high price. If the Biden administration allocated $1,000 for each of the 24 million guns, the price tag would be $24 billion.
That may seem like a hefty amount. But if America wants to spend $3 trillion on new roads and bridges, why not start first by making the country safer by buying back all the assault rifles?
While we’re at it, Congress might also take a look at compensating gun manufacturers for not producing these guns. We keep farmers in business by paying them not to grow certain crops. Why not pay gun makers to stop making certain types of guns?
Merely taking away assault rifles won’t stop all murders. But by taking away a mass killer’s tools, we can reduce the death toll.
Is such a plan outlandish? Perhaps. But mass killings are outlandish, too.
It’s time for America to get serious about so much bloodshed.
If we want to remake the nation with modern roads and bridges, it’s time we fixed our gun culture.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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