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Banning assault rifles isn’t the answer. Thinking it will be could halt real reform

The shootings are coming so fast now you have to specify which one you are referring to in conversation to avoid confusion. Gilroy. El Paso. Dayton. Back to back to back mass shootings perpetrated with semi-automatic, civilian versions of military weapons known as assault rifles. In Gilroy, an AK-47 derivative known as the WASR-10. In El Paso, an AK-47. In Dayton, like so many others, the AR-15. 

In an environment like a school, a nightclub or a big box store like Walmart, we are witness to the incontrovertible fact that a single calm and collected terrorist can inflict mass death more efficiently with their weapon of choice, an assault rifle, than with almost any other conceivable weapon. Contrary to what the NRA will tell you, these guns are particularly deadly and effective for mass shootings: The AR-15 platform has an ease of operation engineered so well a child can fire it rapidly and accurately, yet the velocity of the round is so high that the energy of its impact and resulting cavitation of the human body makes surviving even a single round unlikely.

We also shouldn’t waste another second talking about these guns in isolation from all firearms if we want the killing to actually stop. 

Apart from a conversation about comprehensive regulations on all guns, especially handguns, any effort that only moves us towards incremental progress as “solutions” for violence is unacceptable. After all, reactionary gun legislation has a long history of focusing enforcement on only marginalized communities, the very victims disproportionately represented by gun violence. 

When it comes to these mass shootings, killers perpetrate the majority of them (75 percent) without the use of an assault rifle. The Virginia Tech Massacre was carried out with handguns and still resulted in the loss of 32 souls. But even more critically, mass shootings themselves are disproportionately represented in public debate and resulting policy efforts; they account for less than two percent of total U.S. gun deaths. These 200 deaths per year, as horrific as they are, pale in comparison to the 12,000 murdered in relative quiet by other guns. That’s 6,000 percent more gun homicides, mostly by handguns

Factor in suicides and that death toll more than triples. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of our children between the ages of 10 and 24, and according to the Brady Center Report: The Truth About Suicides and Guns, over half of adolescent and young adult suicide attempts are by firearm. With a gun, suicides are successful over 85% of the time compared to barely 10% by other methods. For those lucky few who survive an attempt at taking their own life, 90% of the time they move on with their lives and ultimately do not succumb to another attempt. 

Mass shootings distort our perception of reality and mediate how we respond. We have fallen prey to the logical trap of terrorism: Fear has moved us to react to the salient extreme. This has moved us to rely on flawed assault weapon interventions with limited effectiveness and legislation that disproportionately focuses gun abatement in communities of color. From the Second Amendment to the Black Panthers, the history of gun control in this country has been about preventing marginalized communities from arming themselves in response to racism

The N.R.A. and their ilk are more than happy to contest us on this front, far from any terrain that would actually limit gun sales and revenue or protect communities being actively victimized. It’s fitting that 85 percent of terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 have been carried out with the use of guns, and according to the FBI, the vast majority of domestic terror attacks for 2019 have been carried out by white supremacists and white nationalists. The case of the racist El Paso killer is no different. His manifesto echoed Fox News fearmongering in that his attack was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

We don’t have time to wait for the Supreme Court to overturn the Second Amendment. Well within the confines of the constitution and the Heller v. D.C. decision itself is legislative space for us to federally enforce annual registration, licensing, competency testing and ownership requirements like gun safes and mandated insurance. It is everything responsible gun owners expect, the vast majority of whom don’t belong to the NRA or support its extreme views. 

The Supreme Court decided to affirm personal gun rights narrowly in Heller (5-4) just a decade ago, reversing centuries of our understanding of the Second Amendment and seven decades of established precedent. But when it comes to the contemporary gun control debate, the stance of these judges feels like some distant past. To give some perspective on how far and how quickly the overton window has shifted, in 2008 when Heller was decided, a majority of us (58 percent) felt it was more important to control gun ownership than protect gun owners’ rights. Today, less of us (55 percent) oppose letting teachers carry guns in schools

The unique dangers presented by assault rifles like the AK-47 used in El Paso would be addressed with a comprehensive regulatory approach that enforces certain hurdles to ownership to all guns which could and should function on a graduated scale depending on the deadliness of the weapon. You want to have an extended magazine? Fine, make sure you fill out the following forms with the FBI and pass an interview. You need a silencer? Sure, make sure you have a notarized copy of your lawyer’s justification letter on file with the local police department. These are the reasonable costs of freedom.

After all, there are many other weapons that gun advocates are quick to point out are just as dangerous as the AR-15 or AK-47 that an “assault rifle” ban would miss because of classification problems and inevitable workarounds.

Fines, criminal charges and yes, confiscation must also be on the table for those who don’t comply, as well as opening the path for liability for those who sell and manufacture guns. Any vendor who wants to sell a one hundred round drum will be far more reticent when the registered product can be traced directly back to a bill of sale and targeted by a civil suit. These solutions exist and have been proven to work elsewhere. We just need to find the political will to move the public debate back to where it should be.

— Juddson Taube, Ph.D. candidate

Contact Juddson Taube at taube ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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