, Salem, MA

December 22, 2012

Watson: A free society needs sane gun laws

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — We need to make some adjustments.

After the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six women in Newtown, Conn., by a sick individual wielding a semi-automatic rifle, we need to take some steps that will reduce our losses in whatever shootings are next.

Let’s stipulate some facts first though, right up front, so that we’ll all know that we all know them. Then we can focus productively on possible changes to the status quo.

First, there will always be violence, murder, psychopaths, alienated shooters, and misuse of guns. No set of laws, however wise, will eliminate those realities.

Second, in America, citizens have a right to own firearms. Some people like that rule, others do not; but regardless, not every discussion about types of guns, background checks, permitting requirements, and gun safety is an attempt to deprive Americans of their constitutional right to own guns.

Third, every mass shooting of the past 30 years has been the result of more than one factor. No mass shooting is a consequence solely of easy access to guns, or access to semi-automatics, or because the shooter is mentally disturbed, or because he was bullied, or because his home environment is badly broken. In any murderer and his rampage, there is a mosaic of factors that combine to produce the horror. So our attempts to reduce the number of massacres will need to examine the possible roles of many elements.

And no matter how good our gun laws, how effective our mental health systems, and how whole our families and our society, there will always be shootings.

So our efforts today should be on making the reforms that we know will reduce the frequency and lethality of mass killing events.

When 20-year-old Adam Lanza literally shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was carrying what is essentially a military soldier’s assault rifle, a gun that was designed exclusively for the purpose of killing humans as rapidly and effectively as possible.

Lanza wielded a rapid-firing, semi-automatic, Bushmaster AR-15, and he was therefore able to pump many bullets into many victims. One child had 11 bullets in her.

A semi-automatic will fire repeatedly as quickly as the shooter repeatedly pulls the trigger. And equipped with military-capable, 30-round magazines, as Lanza had, this rifle unleashes a hellish amount of nonstop firepower. For this reason, semi-automatics have been the choice of psychopaths intending to slaughter as many people as they can, in public places.

Think of the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo. (the movie theater); Tucson, Ariz. (Congresswoman Giffords); Virginia Tech (campus shootings); Columbine, Colo. (the high school). All done with military-style semi-automatic pistols and rifles.

So one area of reform looks promising. It is time to re-institute the outright ban on all assault rifles, and institute major restrictions on semi-automatic pistols and large magazines.

The gun show and private gun sales loopholes should be closed, too, so that any gun sale anywhere would require the same background checks, licensing, and review by local law enforcement.

Such regulatory reform would not prevent any law-abiding citizen from owning a gun, but it would make it much harder for a sick individual to procure the sort of firepower and ammunition necessary for semi-automatic carnage.

There will be those who oppose any further regulation. They will say that an armed society is a safer society; and that gun ownership is a defining indicator of a free society, and the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty.

But those gun advocates are unlikely to be able to describe the profound and legitimate need, and the complexities and difficulties, of reconciling degrees of personal liberty with the need to create a robust, safe, pluralistic, collective society.

Furthermore, it isn’t gun ownership that guarantees freedom and liberty; it is free speech and community. In fact, guns inhibit free speech, and — like survivalism — they encourage not community but the atomization and fragmentation of the population.

Look around. Guns are relied on in underdeveloped societies. It is the political public square — the highest form of human association — that guarantees democracy and freedom.

Adam Lanza had an AR-15 and he didn’t defend freedom, he massacred little children. His personal dysfunction, his odd home life routines, our careless society, and his easy access to an assault rifle all combined to result in his final paroxysm.

Let’s address all of those elements. But for sure let’s write some saner, more restrictive gun and ammo regulations.


Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at