I last wrote at length about gun laws and mass killings in 2012 after the slaughter of 20 children and seven adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I remember thinking then that if there was any good to come out of that ghastly event, it was that this horror would be too much for a nation to bear. Surely we’d take steps to prevent future shootings.
I was convinced of that.
It turned out I was wrong. Following Sandy Hook, nothing happened. I expected high-capacity magazines might be regulated in some way since I don’t think it’s possible to ban assault-style rifles in a meaningful, constitutional fashion. You either ban all semiautomatics, including many hunting rifles, or just cosmetic features. But high-capacity magazines? I thought there’d be some movement there.
Like many Americans, I became aware of bump-fire stocks in the days following the mass murder in Las Vegas. When I first heard audio from that shooting, I assumed the rifles used had been illegally modified for automatic fire. Legal bump stocks, I soon learned, don’t turn rifles into full autos. Instead they allow the shooter to pull the trigger faster than their finger could on its own.
Bump stocks make rifles less accurate, all things being equal. And automatic fire does not necessarily mean more deadly. Military rifles fire three-shot bursts.
The situation in Las Vegas — a large audience grouped closely together — is what made the bump stock so deadly. The shooter really didn’t have to aim. Regular semi-automatic fire is usually more deadly in most mass killings such as the one in the Texas church last week, where the murderer simply walked from one terrified victim to another, killing them as they cowered in fear.
Society has made a decision on automatic weapons, or machine guns. Only those made before 1986 remain legal, and those grandfathered firearms are heavily regulated. There weren’t that many machine guns around in 1986, however. Today, there are millions of assault-style rifles in the hands of American citizens. Even if banning these guns was a good idea, and I don’t think it is, confiscating them would require a civil war.
Bump stocks, however, could be banned. The ATF has determined they are not firearms. That’s why they are legal.
High-capacity magazines are problematic. For starters, there’s no set definition. Some peg the number at more than 10 rounds, others at 20. Slide Fire, the Texas company that developed the bump stock, packages its innovation in kits with 100-round barrel magazines. Still, there’s debate about how much more lethal high-capacity magazines make firearms as trained shooters can switch magazines faster than most of us can pull a trigger.
Some fear gun regulations are just the first step in a vast conspiracy to take away all firearms. I’m not so sure. Most citizens support the Second Amendment, though they expect gun owners to exercise this right responsibly. Most citizens support owning firearms for hunting or personal protection, even if they don’t do so themselves. But when you tell folks you can order a kit over the internet that allows an AR-15 to carry 100 rounds, and fire up to 800 rounds per minute, most scratch their heads and wonder why.
If gun owners don’t police ourselves, someone else may do it for us, especially if the horrible slaughter continues unabated. To protect our rights, we may need to sort out which inconveniences — more frequent magazine changes, fewer rounds per minute, more thorough background checks — we’re willing to accept.
Because telling people they need to carry a gun at church isn’t the answer.