In the Arena

‘Gunclingers’: Aurora, Assault Weapons and the Rise of Mass Shootings

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Some surprising words about gun control from Bill Kristol on Sunday’s Fox News panel:

People have a right to handguns and hunting rifles … I don’t think they have a right to semiautomatic, quasi–machine guns that can shoot hundred of bullets at a time. And I actually think the Democrats are being foolish as they are being cowardly. I think there is more support for some moderate forms of gun control.

I was on a different panel, on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and the conservatives on that panel — George Will and Jennifer Rubin — offered arguments that seemed less than rigorous.

Rubin argued — correctly — that gun violence had eased over the past 20 years and — incorrectly — that this “empirical evidence” meant that additional gun-control measures, like an assault-weapon ban, weren’t necessary. The problem with this argument is obvious: gun violence has diminished but mass shootings have exploded in frequency since the 1970s. I spoke this morning with James Alan Fox, who said mass killings were not unknown in the U.S. prior to 1966 — when Charles Whitman took to the Texas tower with an arsenal and began picking off civilians — but they were exceedingly infrequent. Ever since 1976, we’ve been averaging more than 20 per yearNow, that has to do with a lot of things. It has to do with industrial-strength violence on TV and the movies, and the obsessive use of violent video games by young men, and the increasing mobility and atomization of society — but, as the Aurora shooting demonstrates, the carnage is greater (and the experience more otherworldly kinetic) when assault weapons are involved.

Then George Will weighed in with this observation:

The killer in Aurora, Colo., was very intelligent and farsighted and meticulous. I defy you to write a gun-control law that would prevent someone like this with a long time horizon and a great planning capability from getting the arms he wants. I just think that this is a mistake.

Again, this has the appearance of accuracy — but it’s a sloppy, defensive argument. Will is undoubtedly correct that the killer was going to go on a rampage no matter the severity of gun-control laws. But what if he’d not been able to purchase a semiautomatic rifle with the capacity to fire 50 to 60 bullets per minute? How many would have been killed and wounded then? Far fewer, no doubt. And if an assault-weapon ban would save lives in situations like these, just what exactly is the argument against? That gun owners’ rights are being violated? Oh, please. No right is absolute. You don’t have the right to own a nuclear weapon. The question is where you draw the line.

Taken to its logical conclusion — that no law can prevent all these attacks — Will’s formulation collapses into silliness. It’s like arguing that there’s no sense in having police departments because they can’t prevent every crime. An assault-weapon ban would, at the very least, make it significantly harder to bring off the Aurora massacre. And if it prevented just one of the 20 mass killings a year, it would be worth it. If it prevented one mass killing a decade, it would be worth it. Actually, if it prevented one person from getting wounded in a rampage these past 30 years, it would have been more than worth it.

We are not talking about characters in Batman movies here. We are talking about the death and maiming of actual people. And our inability to have this conversation now — Kristol is absolutely right about the President’s lack of a spine on this one — says a lot about the paralytic dysfunction of our political system. This should be a no-brainer.

I’ll have more on this issue in the magazine this week.