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Ending Gun Murders

The history of the discussion about gun violence in the United States is that it peaks from time to time after each fresh horror story, but then the media goes on to more appealing topics. I’ve deliberately waited until the new year to talk about this perennial disgrace, but this week the media-pumped phony “fiscal-cliff” drama has moved into the hold cycle for a couple of months and other matters have some room for consideration.

Okay, now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Or, more colloquially, it’s time to cut the crap and do something about the guns that kill people in these United States.

Yes, I said guns kill people, though the National Rifle Association would try to persuade you otherwise. Of course people fire those guns, but without the kinds of death-dealing weapons Americans are uniquely able to acquire, the murderous impulse which afflicts many human beings from time to time is much harder to satisfy.

Since the Newtown tragedy took place, I’ve been digesting endless news articles and opinions both written and verbal about how it could have been prevented. It’s become clear that there is one outstanding enabling factor for the many, many gun deaths we endure.

Weapons which are capable of firing many bullets very fast—sometimes called assault weapons—are the prime cause of gun murder. And the way to stop these killings is first, before trying anything else, to get rid of their ammunition. Without bullets, these guns are harmless.

If our lawmakers are serious about putting a stop to the killing, they should immediately enact laws which prohibit the sale of the kind of ammunition and attendant accessories which make it possible for a shooter to pump many bullets into a human target in a short time. There’s a performance standard for what this legislation should describe and prohibit: ammunition which can be delivered in such a way that more than two shots can easily be fired in succession, regardless of what you call the guns.

Taking this action alone would quickly and significantly reduce the number of gun deaths, both from the kind of mass murders committed by madmen in Newtown, Tulsa, Aurora and countless other locations in the United States in the last couple of decades, and from individual grudge shootings like the rain of bullets which gunned down a barber who was involved in a child custody dispute in Berkeley last year.

Would this stop all gun murders? Of course not, but it would stop a whole lot of them.

Next step: get rid of the guns too. Yes, there are now a lot of these repeat-firing weapons on the street throughout the country, banned in some states but easily acquired in others. Taking such guns off sales shelves all over the country wouldn’t get them off all the streets today, but at least it would keep them off most streets in the future.

And also, a hunter of my acquaintance tells me we should ban sale of after-market devices which convert limited-fire guns to repeat-fire models with “hair triggers”—let’s call them weapons of mass murder, or WMMs. Responsible sportsmen detest these gadgets, which are not used for hunting animals, just for shooting people.

The Second Amendment, which has been interpreted as guaranteeing the right to own guns, specifically endorses regulating their use—this is the kind of regulation which would work within the court-defined constitutional boundaries.

Other measures? Some have suggested creating a registry of “mentally ill” people who wouldn’t be allowed to buy guns. This is a stupid idea, for a couple of reasons.

First, statistically, very few of the many people who suffer from mental illness become mass murderers.

And second, background checks make little difference—few mass killers have records of similar past acts. Mass gun killers, legally sane or not, often get their hands on weapons of mass murder purchased by other people with impeccable credentials. Adam Lanza’s mother bought the guns with which he killed her, and no background check would have stopped her from buying them.

Credentials aside, simply wanting to buy the kind of guns and ammunition which have no purpose except firing many bullets into other humans should really be taken as defacto evidence of the kind of emotional instability which—in and of itself—should be disqualifying, no registry needed. There’s no sane reason for a civilian to want an assault weapon,.

Which circles back around to the wisdom of just taking the repeat-fire ammunition and devices off the shelves as a first step. No one needs bullets for WMMs, which are designed to kill people and that’s all

From a political perspective, it seems that one step at a time, with the most obvious one first, would be the easiest.

But who in the U.S. Congress has the courage to vote, soon, to outlaw ammo for assault weapons? There’s a good way to find out whom to put pressure on:

The New York Times has published a dandy interactive map derived from the NRA’s list of senators and members of Congress who vote the way they want, plus more information on which national legislators took campaign money from the NRA.

Start now, two years before the next congressional election, to figure out where you might have an impact. Pick somewhere you used to live, or where you have friends and relatives, and take a look at who’s representing the area in Congress.

To test this strategy, I checked out Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I used to live, and was shocked to discover that this very progressive college town is now represented by a guy with an A+ rating from the NRA. John Dingell Jr., now 86 years old and counting, has a normal respectable liberal record on things like health care, but he’s been carrying water for the gun lobby for much too long. It’s time, now, to find a successor whose position on other standard progressive issues is just as good as Dingell’s, but who will vote against selling ammunition for assault weapons. I plan to contact friends there to see what can be done to improve or remove him.

It’s even possible Dingell might change his mind on just this one point before his current term ends—if so it would make a big difference. Wikipedia notes that “he reflects the conservative values of his largely Catholic and working-class district.” The Catholic Church, with all its faults, does not support the use of assault weapons—opposition to them might even be characterized as “pro-life” by most Catholics, consistent with the church’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty.

And I have a good old friend in West Virginia, active in the Democratic Party. That state’s NRA-backed Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, has indicated his willingness to “talk” about assault weapons, and I’m going to ask her to get the conversation about ammunition moving as soon as possible.

You get the idea. You can do it too It’s worth a try.

I’d like to see a nation-wide database which pinpoints each and every lawmaker in the country who should be targeted by those opposed to gun murder, including ones in state legislatures, which the Times map doesn’t quite cover. The Obama campaign’s organization which won the November election was impressive, and it should be brought to bear on the gun murder issue. If legislators at the national, state and local levels received serious attention from a group as well organized as the NRA, either in primaries or in general elections, it just might make a difference.

BECKY O’MALLEY is the online Editor at Berkeley Daily Planet, where this essay originally appeared. 

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Becky O’Malley is Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

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