Monday, January 14, 2013

Gun Control Debate, Part II: Why the Assault Weapons Ban will not succeed

This is the second in a series of posts in regards to the current Gun Control Debate. I began writing, and found I had quite a lot to say, so I have broken it into multiple parts.

On the pro gun control side of this issue, there is a lot of talk about banning assault weapons and it seems likely that at least some legislation is forthcoming. It is unclear what will be in the proposed legislation, but it will most likely be a rehashing of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban which limited the manufacture, sale, and transfer of certain types of weapons, along with limiting the manufacture and sale of large capacity magazines. There are also rumblings of closing the Gun Show Loophole which typically allows private sales of guns without any record of the transaction and does not require a background check of the buyer.

Proponents of the ban, such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein, want to ban assault weapons because they are made with one purpose: "to kill in close combat." Well, that isn't necessarily the case. In regard to most assault weapons, they were designed for military purposes and then modified over the years for civilian use. Some people do, in fact, hunt with the AR-15. Others use it for personal defense of their homes and property. Some just enjoy shooting it. We can question why someone would need an AR-15, or other assault rifle, for those purposes, but let's not pretend that the only reason someone would own an assault rifle would be to kill other human beings.

If new legislation looks anything like the 1994 legislation, here is some of what we will get:
  • No semi-automatic rifles with a detachable magazine and two or more of the following features:
    • Folding or Telescopic Stock
    • Pistol Grip
    • Bayonet mount
    • Flash supressor
    • Grenade Launcher
  • Naming of certain models that are specifically banned, regardless of feature set. (AR-15, for example)
  • Limit on the number of rounds a magazine can hold (10 seems to be the magic number) 
I had the pleasure of firing a friend's AR-15 over a year ago, and it is, in fact, a fun gun to shoot. It is light weight, responsive, and very accurate. I had not fired a rifle in some time, but was able to hit targets at 300 yards (mostly). The AR-15 was first developed by ArmaLite for the US Military. It was bought by Colt and went into service as the M-16. A semi-automatic version was later marketed and sold to civilians as the AR-15 we know today, though various versions are sold by different manufacturers now. It fires a .223 bullet with a muzzle velocity of about 3,200 feet per second.

I am a gun owner, for whatever that's worth. I hate the idea that, in order to have a respected voice in this debate, you have to own or have owned guns. Every time I hear a politician say, "I'm a gun owner," I'm fairly certain that they haven't actually used the gun in a long time, if ever, and I wish that our culture could find value in people that have no need of guns as much as those that do. So, yes, I am a gun owner, but, to be honest, I only own one gun: a .308 bolt action hunting rifle, and just purchased that last year. I've been hunting for a few years and have either bow hunted or borrowed a rifle from a friend for years prior. My grandfather taught me how to shoot in my pre-teen years. He was a thirty year Army veteran and owned quite a large personal arsenal. Had his brothers not come and taken all of his guns a few years before he passed, I'd probably own a few of those. That said, I have no need or desire for more than this one rifle. I've considered buying a handgun as a sidearm when I am bow hunting, but if I ever feel that is warranted, I'll probably just borrow one from a friend.

While there are people that use the AR-15, and similar assault rifles, to hunt varmints, coyotes, etc. It is not suitable for big game hunting. The .223 is too small to bring down even a modest sized deer with a single shot, save maybe a head shot. In fact, most any rifle, smaller than .243 will not be sufficient for big game. So, when we talk about how deadly assault weapons are, it is not so much about the stopping power of the weapon, generally, as it is with the ability of these weapons to fire many shots in short succession and with a high amount of accuracy. In fact, some have suggested that the reason the military uses this particular weapon is because their goal isn't necessarily to kill, but to incapacitate. If we are talking just in terms of destructive force of a single round, my .308 is far more deadly than an AR-15, inside 300 yards. The AR attempts to make up for this in quantity.

The AR-15 I fired, even if it was not specifically named as banned, would be banned under that legislation because it had two of the characteristics named above (in addition to having a detachable magazine): a collapsible stock, and a pistol grip.

Here is where the ban begins to fall apart. Remove just one of those features, just one, and suddenly the rifle is no longer banned. So, instead of a collapsible stock, replace it with a standard stock, and voila, it's no longer an assault rifle! While the AR-15 was named specifically in the prior ban, manufacturers will quickly create new rifles that, for all intents and purposes, are nearly identical to banned rifles, save a few minor modifications, and with new names, of course.

To further complicate the idea of banning these weapons, even Dianne Feinstein admits that any existing guns will have to be grandfathered in. Any guns or magazines purchased prior to the effective date of the legislation will be exempt. Anyone that has been paying attention to the news since Sandy Hook knows that gun sales have been through the roof, and, should a ban be eminent, expect it to get worse. While this legislation seems like a step in the right direction, it will ultimately fail to affect any significant change in mass shooting deaths, because it leaves too many loopholes for future exploitation and leaves all of the existing weapons in use, not to mention all of the weapons, just as deadly, that do not fall under the ban. The ban may make the politicians feel like they are doing something, but if the goal is to get rid of assault weapons, so called, it will not be enough.

In time, the ban may reduce the number of available weapons that meet the criteria outlined above, but it will not stem the tide of available guns that are, save a few cosmetic differences, identical to the guns it aims to ban. It will take decades for the current grandfathered arsenal to diminish, probably more, and even if all of those guns are removed from circulation, others will take their place.

So what are we to do? If the ban will ultimately be ineffective, how do we help prevent future shootings?

Firstly, and, I think, most importantly, we must address the mental health component in these shootings. Most of the shooters, if not all, suffered from severe mental health diseases. According to an investigation conducted by Mother Jones Magazine, more than 60% of the shooters involved in mass shootings over the past thirty years have displayed mental health problems before the shooting. If we can not adequately address the mental health needs of these individuals, how can we hope to ever limit casualties?

Unfortunately, mental health is often stigmatized in the United States and avenues to care are rarely easy or accessible. We are an independent people, and as such, I think we don't like to be perceived as sticking our noses into other people's business. Because of this, even if we suspect that our friends or neighbors are struggling, we usually don't step in for fear of over-stepping social norms. Individually, this independent nature also tends to make us think we can cope with any problem ourselves and are, consequently, less likely to seek care, even if we think we need it.

A decade ago, my family lived in a great, established neighborhood in North Portland. We had strong relationships with all of our neighbors, and frequently spent time at each others homes for barbeques and sometimes to just hang out. We had one neighbor, however, that we rarely saw, just behind our house. When we first moved in, he and his wife came over one time, but then they separated, and we rarely saw him after that. A year or so before we moved to our current home, this neighbor killed himself with a rifle. I don't know that we could have done anything to prevent it, but I certainly regret not making more of an effort to reach out to him, especially after his wife left. It is these, seemingly unimportant, connections that are the first line of defense.

Aside from taking better care of our neighbors, we must improve the availability of mental health care. Most health insurance has very limited mental health coverage, if any, and the availability of mental health care givers is quite limited. A few months ago, someone I know required emergency mental health services. 911 first responders felt he needed to be admitted for observation and treatment, unfortunately, all available emergency beds at St. Vincent were taken with other patients, due to a high volume of mental health patients. I'd like to think this is uncommon, but I know it's not. And this is how most mental health patients receive care: in the emergency room. This is not only expensive, but dangerous. We must have a care system that is far more proactive and responsive to the unique needs of these patients.

Aside from better mental health services, it would help if we did not give these shootings such a high media profile, though, to be honest, I don't know how that is possible, other than not buying what they are selling. If no one watches or reads these predatory journalists, will they dry up and go away? I don't know. I watch very little television news coverage, but it is still there.

On the afternoon of the Clackamas Town Center shooting, it was my brother, on the other side of the country that called me to tell me about it. That evening, when I went home from work, several local news helicopters were still circling the mall, some five hours after the shooting. What useful purpose were they serving up there? What additional information could they possibly provide?

We are a violent society. We tend to choose violence over all other forms of problem solving. This tendency is reflected in all aspects of our society, from sports, to art, and even to politics. Our base instinct appears to be violence as a primary means of responding to a confrontation. This is most dramatically illustrated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps this is just the way we are. Given this, and the constant media regurgitation of these horrible shootings, and even with the on going war, it is sometimes hard to understand that we are actually living in one of the least violent times in human history. That does not make these shootings easier to take, however.

By our nature, and for all our violent tendencies, we still strive to protect innocence, which is the root of everyone's efforts to find some answers here. So, regardless of where one stands on how to get there, it's important to note that all sides are actually striving for the same goal. We may disagree on which path will lead us there, but we are all trying to get to the same place.

With this in mind, I will examine an even harder question in my next post: Is it time to Amend the Second Amendment?

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