SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 1, 2013

Watson: Gun culture myths distract from reform efforts

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week, after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., I wrote about the need for additional gun laws. I wrote that it is time to reinstate the outright ban on all semi-automatic assault rifles, and institute major restrictions on semi-automatic pistols.

For it is important to understand that at close range a semi-automatic pistol equipped with a large magazine can be used to deliver the same quantity and lethality of firepower as a semi-automatic rifle.

Restrictions on magazines larger than 10 bullets should be considered. For it is the ability of a shooter to be able to fire repeatedly for long periods of time — without interrupting himself with a requirement to reload — that permits him to wound or murder many victims incredibly quickly. Smaller magazines won’t prevent attempts at mass killings, but there is a good chance that they’ll reduce the body count for any given incident.

Furthermore, the gun show and private sales loopholes should be closed, too, so any gun sale anywhere would require the same background checks, licensing and review by local law enforcement. With all of the attention being paid to the mental dysfunctions of past mass killers, and all of our knowledge about the dangers of permitting guns in irresponsible hands, it is pure recklessness to continue allowing gun sales to occur without background checks on the prospective buyers.

The vast majority of the approximately 75 million gun owners in America are responsible with their firearms. And the vast majority of guns — some 330 million of them — in private hands are not semi-automatic weapons equipped with large external magazines. Most owners hold guns for hunting, target shooting or personal defense. So our nation could increase the prohibitions on assault weapons and large magazines without constraining most gun ownership.

Although the intent of the Second Amendment can be debated quite handily and legitimately — its wording is awkward and unclear; it implies a connection between gun ownership and a “militia,” and the national context at the time has relevance — as a practical matter, it is neither productive nor realistic to attempt to ban all gun ownership. The Second Amendment is the law, and it is here to stay.

But also as a practical matter, we are foolish not to take the steps that we can to reduce the chances of any public shooting becoming a large slaughter.

As we debate further regulation — Congress is considering new legislation — keep an eye out for gun control opponents who attempt to claim that any new regulations are tantamount to removing your right to own a firearm.

The National Rifle Association especially, and the congressmen who partner with it, will try to have you believe that no further reasonable regulatory lines can be drawn, that all regulations are an attack on the Second Amendment.

After the Newtown shooting, the NRA has taken an extremist position: that no additional gun control regulations are warranted on any firearms or their ammunition — not even semi-automatics or 100-bullet drum magazines.

Furthermore, you will hear the argument that gun ownership in America is necessary to defend against the potential tyranny of our own government. This is the most illogical and fanciful of all the pro-gun discourse.

It is so bizarre an argument that it is difficult to know quite where to begin to respond. While an authoritarian government is possible theoretically, exactly how would it develop in America, a 236-year-old democracy with widely shared and strong traditions of freedom, with an incredibly robust system of procedures and checks and balances, with an aggressive free press, and with a governmental design that deliberately distributes power across four branches?

Would nobody notice — would nobody object — as this tyrannical force attempted to take power? Would nobody notice if elections were canceled? How long would this coup take? Just who would favor this tyranny? And what about all of the police departments and the military? Where would they fit into this fantastic scenario?

How long would it take before we’d need to hole up in our armed homes and fire away at our government? If the military joins the tyranny, we’d defeat their tanks, drones and F-15s? And if the military won’t sign up with the authorities, then how do they commandeer the nation?

Who’s going to do this? President Obama? Mitch McConnell? Nancy Pelosi? John Boehner? Antonin Scalia? General Petraeus? Karl Rove? Warren Buffett? Congress? General Electric? Bank of America? Maybe a conspiracy of all of them?

Yes, taking that possibility seriously in the U.S. is just short of unhinged. While there is always a tension between maintaining individual rights and running a harmonious collective society, America has been showing the world how to do just that successfully for 236 years. By the time we would take to guns to establish that proper balance, we would have undoubtedly been dealt much worse developments to respond to.

And therein lays the key. If we want gun rights, or fair taxes, or free speech, or good schools, or honest corporations, or efficient government, or the freedoms to pursue happy and prosperous lives, then it is incumbent on all of us to contribute to making a society that can find that healthy and sustainable balance between “my” rights and the inevitable compromises that living in a country requires.

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Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.