With President Barack Obama’s re-election, there has been considerable talk that gun control will be a central focus of his second term. How that might play out remains to be seen, but I, for one, would welcome an honest discussion about guns.
What I see instead is a lot of nonsense and hyperbole, from well-intentioned people concerned about random violence and mass killings – who too often know little about guns – and from equally earnest gun enthusiasts who fear any talk of gun control as an attack on their Second Amendment rights.
But the issue isn’t the Second Amendment – it has never guaranteed the right to possess any arms imaginable under any conceivable circumstances. Nor is the question how to end all gun-related violence or protect all Americans, neither of which is remotely possible.
What is it about is leverage. We cannot eradicate evil, but we can minimize the amount of power individuals can assert over others. And to my mind, the combination of semi-automatc weapons, modern ammunition and high-capacity magazines affords the wrong people too much leverage far too easily.
Two of my best childhood friends were brothers whose father was an avid hunter and an ordance engineer. Weapons for which ammunition was available were locked up, but there were lots of others around. (Note to parents: Just because ammunition for an ancient 7.5 mm Schmidt-Rubin or a .50-70 trapdoor Springfield is hard to come by doesn’t mean a determined 14-year-old can’t make something that will approximate it – and then fire it. Details not forthcoming.)
The point being, knowledge on this subject is hardly top secret. Try Smith’s Small Arms of the World. Nonetheless, gun-control advocates persist in calling for a ban on assault rifles, without offering a definition substantially more meaningful than what might be scary-looking.
At the same time, some gun advocates have adopted an extreme and untenable vision of gun rights. The basic understanding has long been that there is a dividing line between arms that are permissible and those that are not: For whatever reason they want, civilians can have rifles, shotguns and handguns; more serious hardware such as machine guns or artillery are the province of the military. That line has been subtly challenged, however, with newer technology.
For a century or so, infantrymen went to war with what were essentially hunting rifles. But since the 1950s or ’60s, U.S. small arms have become far more devastating and more specifically designed to attack human beings. And it is the type and quantity of ammunition as much as the guns.
The standard U.S. military rifle cartridge throughout World Wars I and II, and Korea was the venerable .30-06. It easily exceeds all of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife’s requirements for big-game hunting. The .223 round fired by the AR-15 does not. And there are reasons for that.
By the middle of World War II, the Germans had figured out that most infantry combat took place within a few hundred yards and didn’t require a rifle lethal at a mile or more. They likewise realized that range was still too great for submachine guns (such as the famous “Tommy” gun) that fired pistol ammunition.
So, they created a gun that fired an intermediate cartridge, one shorter, lighter and less powerful than their standard rifle round (7.92 x 33 instead of 7.92 x 57) but more accurate and more powerful than pistol ammunition. It could be fired semi- or fully automatically, and with that, a soldier had a more effective weapon and could carry more ammunition.
Hitler, enamoured of his own propaganda, called it an “assault rifle.”
But with the AR-15/M-16, the U.S. took things a step further and developed a weapon that was not only lightweight and lethal, but also, by virtue of firing a smaller, faster bullet, produced worse wounds. In the grisly calculus of war, badly wounding an enemy reduces enemy strength not only by the one shot, but also by the two or more required to care for the wounded.
But by what logic does any of that thinking fall on the same side of the dividing line as a boy’s .22 or a trap shooter’s shotgun – and not on the other side with land mines and surface-to-air missiles? It makes sense only in the context of the constant repetition that any gun law is a move toward complete confiscation – an assertion that serves only the gun makers who actually moved the line the other way.
The situation with high-capacity magazines and handguns is much the same – with the added caveat that semi-automatic handguns appear to be the street criminals’ weapon of choice.
No reasonable person wants to ban guns, and no one at all thinks such a move is even possible. But there has to be a way to limit the leverage a person can exert. Background checks and mental-health efforts hold promise, but in the end, any serious attempt to limit mass killings must also focus on ammunition and magazines. After all, guns don’t kill people; bullets do.
Bill Roberts is the Herald’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 375-4560 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.