Besides death and taxes, there is one thing we can always count on. After every mass shooting, conservative lawmakers will say “Now is the time for grieving, not for talking about new gun laws.” This is my attempt to inject a modicum of sanity into this discussion.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States became law in 1791, two years after the Constitution itself was ratified. It simply states:
A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Two-and-a-third centuries later, we are still debating what James Madison, in consultation with other framers, meant. We tend to ignore the part about “A well-regulated Militia”, and argue about the second part, the citizen’s right to bear arms.
But what arms? The most advanced personal-weapons technology in 1791 was muzzle-loading pistols and muskets which could be fired at no more than three shots per minute. Madison could not have imagined hand-held firearms that could fire several hundred shots per minute. I further doubt that our founders could have conceived of a time when US citizens, in possession of such weapons, would regularly turn them on their neighbors.
Now, a problem is a situation that someone thinks something should be done about. I think most sane people would agree that frequent murdering of innocent civilians (often including children) is an unacceptable situation.
What’s the solution? Some focus on the weapon, others on the person using the weapon, but this a false dichotomy, an either/or fallacy. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t tackle both.
I’ll start with the shooter.
For a person to deliberately take a lawful person’s life is not within acceptable bounds of human interaction. Agree? At the least, we would judge the killer to be mentally disturbed at the moment the murder is committed. When one considers, however, that in our increasingly complex technological society, that mental disturbance, either on-going or temporary, is becoming more the norm than the exception, it would seem impossible to predict or identify with certainty when an individual is going become a deadly threat to himself or others.
My premise, then, is that no matter how carefully we observe our neighbors and try to help those we think are in mental distress, we are not going to be successful if we focus solely on the “person” element of the equation. And that leads to the other element, the gun.
The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 assigned regulation of certain types of weapons to the purview of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some weapon types are regulated because they lend themselves to criminal intent (e.g., sawed-off shotguns and suppressors); others, like machine guns, grenades, and bombs, are used principally by our armed forces. The result is that one cannot go to his local gun store and purchase a “NFA firearm” without submitting to a federal background check, paying the $200 federal tax (same as 60 years ago), and waiting a couple of weeks for paperwork approval.
Semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles like the AR-15, on the other hand, are not federally regulated. They are state regulated, and much easier to buy. Maryland requires a background check that can take as long as a week, with no federal tax required. But many states have lesser requirements. Further, one can purchase an assault-type rifle at a gun show in Maryland with no waiting period at all.
The assault rifle was invented by the Germans in WW2. It was unique in being more compact, lighter in weight, and having greater magazine capacity than infantry rifles of that era. The round it fired was less powerful than that of the infantry rifle, but more powerful than the pistol bullet of a submachine gun. It is a close-quarter weapon where high volume of fire is more apropos than accuracy.
US armed forces adopted their version of the assault rifle, the M-16, in the 60’s, and today it remains the standard rifle used by all branches of our military. The M16 and its many variants are all capable of selective fire, a choice of firing mode between semiautomatic (one shot per trigger pull) or a three-round burst per trigger pull. In some variants, full-automatic (continuous) fire like a machine gun is an option.
The civilian version of the M-16 is called the AR-15. The AR-15 is capable of semi automatic fire only, and is the most popular rifle purchased by civilians today. Private citizens buy and use them for hunting, target shooting, home defense, collector value, and sometimes for homicide or suicide.
The AR-15, and other models in the same family, such as the semi-auto AK-47, are especially effective in striking the greatest number of “soft targets” like unarmed, unarmored people, in the shortest time. In this regard it is even more effective than a machine gun. That’s because the combination of high magazine capacity (20-30 rounds) and close range of targets means fewer bullets are wasted. Further enhancing the deadliness of the assault-type rifle is that its magazine, when empty, can be replaced by a full one in a few seconds.
In sum, the assault-type rifle is currently the best legal and readily available choice if you want to kill a lot of civilians in the shortest time.
What can be done about this intolerable situation?
My best idea on the gun part:
Pass a law that re-classifies all firearms capable of accepting high-capacity magazines as NFA firearms, thereby making them federally regulated and taxed upon sales or transfer of ownership. Raise the one-time tax on NFA firearms to $500. Create a new class of semiautomatic pistols and “assault-looking” rifles where magazine capacity is limited to ten rounds for handguns and five rounds for rifles (two-handed guns). As an engineer, I assure you that gun manufacturers can easily design assault-appearing rifles (for some folks it’s the “look” that is psychologically appealing) and handguns with these limitations. Sales of these weapons would be state-regulated and not incur the NFA tax.
The new law would apply not only to future gun sales, it would be retroactive to include all guns currently owned. Current owners of AR-15s, for example, to be compliant with the law, would have to apply for a federal background check and pay the $500 NFA tax on a gun that they bought for $600-$2000. Otherwise, they would be in possession of an illegal weapon. Note that compliance with this law would not demand, encourage, or allow gestapo-type home raids by the feds.
Would this law create a black-market for illegal assault weapons? Probably. But couple it with a government-run buy-back program (say $1000 per AR-15) and the net effect would be a reduction of these types of weapons in civilian hands.
My best idea on the person part:
Create a hotline (call it 1-1-1 for ease of remembering) similar to 9-1-1 whereby people in unusual or time-critical mental distress can contact a caring person for help. Like the 9-1-1 system, a dispatcher would answer immediately, and transfer the caller to the appropriate counselor. This system would obviously require a large network of counselors because the caller shouldn’t expect to be told something like “the present wait time is 30 minutes”.
Perhaps we could commission a diverse group of creative problem solvers (exclude politicians) which would include gun owners, non-gun owners, and people who have “no dog in the fight”. Brainstorm ideas and see if there is a sensible plan we could agree on.
The 2nd Amendment is not an edict from God. It was written centuries ago in circumstances far different than what we have today. It is in dire need of an update.
What can you and I in District 1 do immediately? Express your feelings in writing to:
Representative Andy Harris
2334 Rayburn HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515
Or email him at https://harris.house.gov/contact/offices
Priority one for any politician is to keep his job. To do that, he must actually represent the wishes of his constituents, the voters he is counting on for reelection. Therefore, he will have to accede to the wishes of his potential voters if the volume of complaint is high enough.
If we remain silent, nothing will change.
Bob Moores retired from Black & Decker/DeWalt in 1999 after 36 years. He was the Director of Cordless Product Development at the time. He holds a mechanical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University