Wednesday, June 15, 2016

COMMENTARY: Too much firepower, not enough reason

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2016 at 5:16 PM

In practically every discussion of gun violence, some Second Amendment  type inevitably invokes the old, cringe-worthy cliche: Guns don't kill people, people do.

So let's re-frame what happened last weekend in Orlando. A person — one who pledged allegiance to ISIS — murdered 49 people and injured more than 50 others in an atrocious act of hate violence.  His tools of choice: a semi-automatic assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol, both of which have high-capacity magazines as standard equipment. 

Guns don't kill people, but they make it pretty simple for someone with the worst of intentions to kill or wound a lot of people in a matter of moments. That's what happened in Orlando, just as it happened in Newtown and San Bernardino and Aurora and oh my God, the list just goes on and on.

Sadly,  that list will grow.

So it's time to abandon the abhorrent "guns don't kill people, people do" mindset. It's dismissive, reckless, negligent, and it ignores reality.  And that reality is this: repeatedly, the wrong people have been able to get their hands on guns that fire off tens of rounds in seconds, with tragic results. To these people, the guns are easily accessible, powerful, efficient instruments of death.

Look, I'm reluctant to wade into public debates about guns; they become vicious and divisive so fast, and they are generally unproductive. But this country really needs to have an honest conversation about guns, and I'm tired of holding my tongue.

In my lifetime, I've watched people use firearms to cause so much death, injury, and fear. I remember watching breaking news reports from Columbine in a friend's dorm room and feeling so confused. When a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people on the school's campus, and then himself, I struggled — and failed — to make sense of the tragedy.  When a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, I was horrified.

The Orlando shooting has been painful. It was an attack on the LGBTQ community, and specifically on LGBTQ people of color. Friends, acquaintances, and colleagues are grieving the loss of life and because, once again, someone singled out people just like them as targets. But this time it wasn't some seriously misguided bathroom bill, or someone spewing garbage about building a border fence. This time it was mass violence.

And now I'm watching the gun debate unfold again; the same one we've had every single time the wrong person gets his hands on a powerful weapon and opens fire. In his eight years in the White House, President Barack Obama has delivered 14 speeches after mass shootings. On Monday, the Daily Show pointed out that he's hosted only 12 state dinners over that same time.

I am so pissed off. This county has been talking about the problems posed by semi-automatic weapons coupled with high-capacity magazines since I was a child. The US had a national ban on those sorts of weapons and magazines at one point, but gunmakers found easy loopholes and the ban expired years ago. Some states have their own laws, too. In New York we're fortunate to have the SAFE Act, which does something very important: it limits the size of magazines that can be sold in the state.  The magazine limit builds on a 1994 state law restricting magazines to 10 rounds.

I don't hate guns, and I don't think they should all be banned. Semi-auto rifles and handguns do have valid civilian uses; hunters don't always bring down their targets in one shot, for example.  And while I don't really buy into the idea of guns as a means of personal protection, I suppose that if you're going to go down that path, a handgun that can fire a few shots quickly is important.  (But I'm also going to point out that a gun in the home is more likely to injure or kill a member of the household than some bushy haired stranger.)

But some of the systems on the market have no business in civilian hands, and the Orlando shooter's gear falls into this category. He bought the firearms legally; he passed a background check even though he had been interviewed by the FBI twice and was on the agency's terrorism watchlist. US law doesn't prohibit people on the watchlist or the no-fly list from buying guns.

So that's how the shooter was able to get a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, a matte-black machine with styling so aggressive that it looks like it was plucked right out of a SWAT officer's hands. Gun enthusiasts have made a big show of criticizing the media for referring to the gun as an AR-15, the most common assault rifle. They're right, it's not an AR-15: it's worse. SigSauer built it to be lighter, shorter, and quieter. Its standard magazine holds 30 rounds; no civilian needs that.

The rifle and its stock magazine appear to fall under New York's assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans.

The Orlando shooter also carried a Glock 17, which the company's website says is "the most widely used law enforcement pistol worldwide." The handgun's standard magazine holds 17 rounds, but doesn't qualify as an assault weapon in New York. A 10-round magazine is available, and would be legal in New York as long as the gun's owner doesn't load it with more than seven cartridges outside of a shooting range.

Folks, the magazines are a major problem here, and this is what state governments and Congress could address immediately. Semi-automatic rifles and handguns fire the rounds as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger. A gun that holds five rounds (a magazine size that's more in line with hunting rifles) can fire fewer shots in succession compared to a gun carrying a 30-round magazine. 

Congress clearly doesn't want to ban guns; at least its GOP members don't. But what about addressing the magazines? Why not set a maximum size of 10 rounds? Or five rounds? The restriction won't put an end to gun violence and  probably won't stop a determined shooter, but the change would at least minimize carnage down the road.

This is where we're at, and that's the saddest part. Too many lawmakers are unconcerned with finding common-sense ways to regulate and restrict something that routinely causes tremendous public harm. It's partly the fault of their constituents, who see any attempt to make guns less destructive as some great intrusion on their liberties, and who raise a fuss accordingly. It's also partly the fault of the gun industry, which has figured out it how to market the hell out of these products and sell them for a hefty price.

So do I think that any positive changes to gun laws will come out of the Orlando tragedy? No. But I so desperately want to be wrong.

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