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Today, US federal law allows any adult to buy guns of all kinds, including AR15-style assault weapons, magazines, and ammunition, without any ID or background checks of any kind. These weapons can be purchased on-line, at gun shows, and from private parties as easily as buying candy. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have their own minimum-age laws, ranging from 14 in Montana to 21 in Illinois, but in the remaining 30 states, it’s legal for a child to possess long guns, including assault rifles. There is no federal limit on the number of guns or amount of ammunition a person may buy or sell. Non-US citizens who are legal residents are also free to buy firearms, however because ID is not required for private sales and at most gun shows, even the legal-residence requirement for non-citizens may not be relevant.
Federal law requires that buyers purchasing from licensed gun stores pass a background check that, among other reasons, rejects anyone who has ever been convicted of, or is under indictment for, a crime punishable by one year or more in prison. But that law doesn’t apply to gun shows and private party sales. To close this “gun show loophole”, eighteen states have passed laws requiring background checks for some or all gun shows and private sales. For the remaining 32 states, the gun market is wide open, and the American gun market is huge. Weak regulation and the wide variety of lethal, modern weapons available in the US makes this market more dangerous than Pakistan’s, which offers far fewer of the most advanced weapons. In fact, America is the world’s gun bazaar. Gun runners buy volumes of weapons here for illegal export to criminals in Latin America and elsewhere, where regulations are tighter.
Statistically, mass killers use a variety of advanced semiautomatic weapons, which are weapons that fire a bullet every time the trigger is pulled until the magazine is empty. The capacity of the magazine is paramount. Many handguns (pistols) can rapidly fire up to 30 bullets without reloading. For example, a Glock .40 caliber pistol can fire up to 31 bullets when equipped with an extended magazine. And a .40 caliber bullet is nearly half an inch wide, making these pistols much more lethal at close range than even an AR15. Worse, extended magazines are available for all common, semi-automatic pistols.
So what is an “assault weapon”?
Most assault weapons sold in the US are semiautomatic rifles that fire .223 caliber or .308 caliber bullets. This number is the bullet width in inches. Military versions are indicated in millimeters, so the .223 caliber civilian bullet is essentially the 5.56 mm military round, the only difference being bullet velocity at the barrel’s end, or muzzle. The original AR15 assault weapon was a rifle built in 1959 by Armalite Corporation for use by the military. Armalite sold the license to Colt Manufacturing, and after minor changes, Colt began selling the weapon in 1963 to the military as the M16. Several military models evolved from that original weapon, including fully-automatic machine guns. These weapons are favored by militaries worldwide because they are light-weight and incredibly destructive.
Colt began selling the civilian version of the AR-15 in the early 1960s. By law, this version fires only in semiautomatic mode. For the civilian AR15, the bullet velocity at the muzzle is up to a stunning 3,300 feet per second, nearly 3 times the velocity of most pistols. These weapons have an effective range of up to 2,000 feet, approaching half a mile. Military versions have higher velocities, but otherwise, automatic mode versus semiautomatic mode is the only significant difference between the military and civilian versions of this weapon. A shooter can easily fire 30 bullets in eight-to-ten seconds with a semiautomatic gun. Worse still, civilian AR15s can easily be modified to become fully-automatic. This is illegal, but is commonly done, and this conversion is not readily apparent until the weapon is fired.
After the original AR15 was introduced to the civilian market, other manufacturers began making competitors to the gun, and the term “AR15” today refers to this style of weapon, made by many companies. Similar assault weapons sold in the US include the AK-47 and its clones and variants, however the classic AK-47 is a larger caliber weapon.
Recruits joining the military and most police agencies undergo psychological screening and extensive safety training before being issued a weapon, but civilians buying these weapons undergo no psychological screening, and no training is required.
Gun enthusiasts point to the Second Amendment as proof of their right to own guns. Assuming this was the founders’ intention, which guns? All guns? At the time of the amendment’s adoption 224 years ago, the most powerful gun was a single-shot musket that was manually loaded with black powder and an iron ball, thus consuming 15-30 seconds between shots. Accuracy was terrible and the gun often misfired. In 1791, the United States consisted essentially of 13 colonies. West of that were the Ohio territories, the Mississippi River, and the vast remainder of the continent, which at that time belonged mostly to Spain. Americans regularly hunted for their food; we had no Army, National Guard or police force; the “frontier” was still lawless, and Indians still attacked. At that time, owning a musket was essential.
Today, owning a modern gun is a liability. Many of today’s semiautomatic pistols can fire a barrage of high-caliber, hollow-point rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger, and such a weapon or and an assault rifle with a 60-round magazine or a 100-round drum can easily be used to murder up to 50 people or more in a couple minutes.
These firearms are in fact, personal weapons of mass destruction. It is simply not sane or reasonable to believe that the authors of the Second Amendment intended that anyone could walk into a store or gun show, and in a few minutes, buy a cache of weapons and ammunition capable of killing many dozens of people.
In the 1950s, the NRA’s advertising was all about family and hunting. Their images were of dad and his son and their golden retriever out hunting ducks. Popular guns were bird guns and single-shot, bolt-action hunting rifles. Over the decades, the NRA’s tone has turned very dark. By the 1970s their message had changed from hunting to self-defense. Killers and muggers lurked everywhere and every man had a duty to buy guns to protect his family from the pervasive criminal element. Today, it’s about terrorism of course, and incredibly, insurrection. The NRA website drenches the viewer in fear, claiming that there are “demons at the door”, that “the godless Left is conspiring to tear America apart”, and that a Republican congress (which is highly compensated by the NRA) is “the only check on Obama’s madness”. According to the NRA, President Obama is insane. The NRA and the group Gun Owners of America broadcast increasingly strident warnings that government tyranny is coming, that Democrats will soon try to confiscate all their guns, that any gun regulation is an assault on their basic rights, and that gun owners have the “patriotic duty” to respond with violence. Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” speech was unambiguous and is still wildly popular with this audience. Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s CEO, equates any attempt to regulate guns to Nazi atrocities, that gun owners may one day be burned in ovens just as the Nazis burned the Jews. Yes, this is a glimpse of today’s NRA. And their membership is at an all-time-high, with over 5 million members. Manufactured fear sells very well in America.
America’s obsession with guns is no longer about deer hunting and target practice. This is not even about self-defense from an intruder. According to these organizations, American gun owners are the “last line of defense” − not against outside aggressors or foreign troops, but against America’s own civil authorities, the police and the National Guard. These gun owners are, according to them, preparing for the apparently inevitable day when they will willingly fire their weapons on other Americans.
Just a heads-up, here: This is called “insurrection”. The US Constitution does not guarantee the right to bear arms in order to encourage insurrection or form private militias to flout American laws.
Republican politicians have for years nurtured the growth of the extremist gun movement, and the NRA rewards them lavishly. In just the 2014 election cycle, the NRA gave nearly a million dollars to politicians, PACs, and the Republican Party. They spent $3.4 million lobbying those politicians, and spent a whopping $28.2 million on advertising. Of this $28 million, they spent $11 million supporting Republican candidates and $15 million attacking Democratic candidates. Yes, the political dividing line is that stark, and that was just one year. Even after repeated, heinous mass killings including Sandy Hook, Roseburg, Oregon, and San Bernardino, Republicans continue to stonewall any notion of tighter gun laws. Instead they offer “prayers and thoughts” and claim lamely that the solution is to take care of the mentally ill. It’s funny; taking care of the mentally ill has never been a Republican priority. Regardless, this argument ignores the fact that we don’t know who is going to commit a mass murder until they do. Indeed, if a person assembles an arsenal of weapons and ammo for their coming war on the children at the local grade school, that could be a flag, but we will never know ─ because we don’t regulate all gun purchases.
Lately, Republicans are attacking President Obama for not working hard enough to stop terrorism on US soil. This would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The only serious tool available to reduce mass killings is to regulate the weapons used to commit those killings, but the Republicans, directed by the NRA, will not allow it. The NRA and the gun lobby have themselves, become a tyranny.
How many more people will be massacred before we find our senses? How many?
It is time. It is well past time. We must pass laws requiring a national, stringent, uniform background check for all gun purchases, in stores, at gun shows, and in all private sales, that examine not only the buyer, but household and family members as well. Every owned gun needs a registered owner. For semiautomatic weapons, magazines containing more than ten rounds must be banned. Existing higher-capacity magazines must be purchased by the federal government and destroyed. These new laws would not infringe on anyone’s rights to own guns, but would reduce the frequency and severity of mass killings in the US. If certain politicians lack the moral conviction to do what is needed, citizens must replace them with representatives who will act on behalf of the entire nation, rather than a clearly dangerous gun lobby.
Copyright 2015 Daniel R. Cobb
Walther P99 semi-automatic
Colt AR-15 A3 Tactical Carbine