The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
We’ve reached a tipping point in the debate over gun control in America. Twelve died in the shooting in Aurora, Colo.; thirteen at Fort Hood in Texas; six in Tucson, Ariz.; and seven in Oak Creek, Wis. In news less publicized, there were 1.8 million emergency department visits for assault in 2011. Of those, 11,500 civilians would die from firearm homicides. Given recent tragedy upon tragedy, perhaps it’s finally “appropriate” to discuss gun policy in America, and in particular, the unnecessary and harmful role of assault weapons in society.
Assault rifles make up only 1.7 percent of all guns in America. Their function in society is dispensable. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of gun owners carried firearms for protection, 66 percent for target shooting, and 58 percent for hunting. None of these activities—the three most popular for gun users—requires assault weapons. They are inaccurate, highly visible, and bulky. Given assault weapons’ limited practicality, why even involve the risk?
Proponents of assault rifles may claim a ban on guns violates Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Other supporters perceive any gun control laws as unnecessary restrictions on American freedom. Some also fear an aggressive ban would spawn the creation of a black market, and have limited impact. The three arguments carry little weight.
The Second Amendment of the Constitution stipulates, “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.” Guns were deemed legal not to secure personal liberties, but to provide for the state’s collective defense. Yet America no longer maintains statewide militias connected to the federal government; rather, we depend upon a standing army for defense.
Even the claim that banning assault weapons would limit Americans’ freedoms is largely unsubstantiated. If anything, I’d argue the reverse. Legalized high-powered weaponry forces public safety agencies, mainly the FBI, to attempt to monitor more civilian activity. On its domestic terrorism homepage, the FBI states that a major part of its job is “preventing homegrown attacks before they are hatched.” Their mission would involve, in theory, extensive research into the lives of many who purchase assault weapons or massive amounts of ammunition, even if both purchases were made legally, as in the case of Aurora shooter James Holmes. WHAT ABOUT IN PRACTICE?
In addition, a ban would help public safety agencies root out domestic terror threats more effectively. Instead of worrying about the intent of certain assault rifle owners, agencies could go after all assault weapons, period. Individual privacy and independence would increase, as would America’s collective security.
Assault weapons provide a clear and present danger to society which far outweighs the threat of a black market. According to one estimate, assault weapons may be involved in up to 7 percent of homicides. According to the FBI’s handbook on gun regulations, an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle based loosely on the military’s M-16, “will fire automatically merely by manipulation of the selector or removal of the disconnector.” With relative ease, assault rifles can be made to mimic weapons of war. Their potential for destruction is staggering.
James Holmes’ shooting in Aurora lasted for, at most, a minute and a half. Within two minutes, twenty-five police officers had responded to the scene. Within six minutes, over two hundred officers swarmed the theater. Despite the limited time, Holmes killed twelve viewers and injured fifty-eight others. Scarier still, Holmes’ .223 caliber assault weapon, a semi-automatic AR-15, jammed during the shooting. When we hear about the massacre in Aurora, we must remember only twelve were killed. An AR-15 is capable of carrying a 100-round drum magazine and of shooting between 50 and 60 bullets per minute. It’s incredibly fortunate more lives were not lost.
Following violent tragedies, the media often tends to focus on the perpetrator and any victims. We know much about James Holmes’ personal life and possible motivations, as we do about Jared Loughner (the Tucson shooter), Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter), and Wade Page (the Oak Creek shooter). In parallel, news stories flood the airwaves about weeping families and distraught communities. Reform is discussed, debated, and far too often ignored. Gradually, life moves on. Society is so intent on searching for new heroes and answers, we take for granted the heroes we live with everyday: police officers, medics, and other first-responders. These brave men and women serve America, yet as a country, we have a bizarre way of expressing gratitude.
In 2004, Congress failed to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban originally passed in 1994 under President Clinton. Since the law’s expiration, police deaths from gunshot wounds have increased substantially. In 2009, 49 police officers died from gunfire, a 24 percent increase from 2008. In 2010, 61 officers were shot and killed, a 37 percent increase from 2009. And in 2011, 68 officers died from gunfire. In fact, 2011 represents the first year of the past 14 years when the leading cause of on-duty police officer death was from gunfire and not from traffic fatalities.
As a society, we choose to arm our police officers. Yet, if we allow both officers and criminals to obtain high-powered weaponry, we’re simply asking for death and instability. Banning assault weapons would not only save civilian lives, but also would help protect police officers on duty. The move would allow for tighter, more aggressive enforcement of the law. The fight against assault weapons should be framed not as a limitation of rights, but as a stand against criminality and criminal violence. The net benefit to society is positive.
On multiple levels, a renewed ban on assault weapons seems a commonsense approach to curtailing gun violence. Would all mass killings stop and the crime rate drop instantly? Likely not. Public education efforts would help further, as would improved techniques to identify and treat mentally disabled individuals. Nonetheless, banning assault weapons is a step forward—it’s a measure against crime, against homicide, against terrorism, against fear. It’s a measure in favor of personal liberties for all Americans.
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