Smith: Crossing the line on automatic weapons

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Smith: Crossing the line on automatic weapons

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:35am -- tim

by  The carnage in Las Vegas shocked us all when Stephen Paddock murdered 58 innocent concertgoers, including Vermont native Sandy Casey. Many others were injured. Inevitably, this shooting reignited a debate about stricter gun control laws.

Usually when politicians talk about the need for gun control, we may tune them out because the solutions they offer are often pieced together without even the most rudimentary knowledge of the mechanics of a firearm.

For example, while urging action on legislation that would prohibit “bump stocks” — devices that allow a semi-automatic rifle to be fired at rates similar to an automatic rifle — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said: “While it may be too late for the victims in Las Vegas, Newtown, and the victims in Charleston, and other terrible shootings we have seen, it is not too late to prevent the next set of innocent Americans from becoming victims.”

Although a bump stock may have been used in the Las Vegas massacre, there is no evidence this device was used in either Newtown or Charleston or any of the most recent mass shootings since 2012. In fact, in the Charleston shooting Dylann Roof killed nine people with a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol.

Some politicians, including Sanders, are pushing for a ban on assault rifles, but the “assault weapons” that politicians are proposing to ban are rifles that are manufactured to look like their military counterparts but operate exactly the same as semi-automatic hunting rifles or pistols. They are not the military version that has the capability of firing in fully automatic mode.

In fact, these rifles were banned for 10 years. And credible studies conclude the ban had no appreciable impact on reducing gun violence, although critics claim 10 years is not enough time to draw such conclusions.

During the presidential campaign Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said: “None of the major shootings that have occurred in this country over the last few months or years that have outraged us, would gun laws have prevented them.”

In 2015 The Washington Post conducted an analysis to fact-check Rubio’s statement. The Post developed a list of 12 mass shootings starting with the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting that killed 26 people, mostly children, at an elementary school in 2012 and ending with a 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead and many more injured.

The result: Rubio’s statement is correct. “This is certainly a depressing chronicle of death and tragedy. But Rubio’s statement stands up to scrutiny — at least for the recent past, as he framed it,” the Post concluded. The Post also pointed out, “Notably, three of the mass shootings took place in California, which already has strong gun laws including a ban on certain weapons and high-capacity magazines.”

A limit on the size of a clip or magazine is frequently proposed without the knowledge that people familiar with a pistol or rifle can reload and fire it within almost the same amount of time with either sized clip. In any case, it is unlikely to reduce the carnage of someone bent on killing people.

And hours after the Las Vegas shooting, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tore into the National Rifle Association for trying to advance a law allowing the use of “silencers” on rifles. House Speaker Paul Ryan declared any such law would not be moving forward. But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial, “She’s referring to legislation that would let gun owners obtain ‘suppressors’ to protect their hearing. A typical firearm suppressor reduces muzzle report by about 30 decibels, bringing down (say) an AR-15 report to about 135 decibels. That is still as loud as a jackhammer.”

So why are politicians rushing to institute gun control laws such as banning “assault rifles,” reducing clip size and prohibiting suppressors — all of which may have little effect on reducing gun violence?

Because in politics, when you can’t really do anything, you must look like you’re doing something.

Gun violence is much more complicated than simply banning a weapon.

Reducing gun violence requires that we tackle issues like intergenerational poverty, the lack of educational and economic opportunities, physical and emotional abuse, domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, declining family cohesiveness, prejudice and radicalization of religions. This kind of work is complex and takes time. It’s a lot harder to communicate these solutions, especially in a speech. What’s easier is to throw out a new restriction that will not solve our challenges but is indeed politically expedient.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Leah Libresco, a statistician and former newswriter at FiveThirtyEight.com, helped analyze 33,000 gun deaths in this country. “Two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States every year are suicides,” according to Libresco. “No proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them.”

She also found that nearly 1 in 5 gun deaths involved young men killing other young men, often related to gang violence. Stricter gun laws probably would not have a significant impact on this statistic.

“We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves,” Libresco concluded.

But with all that said, those advocating for banning items that turn a semi-automatic weapon into a gun that mimics a fully automatic weapon have a point when they say these devices violate the spirit of a long-standing ban on automatic firearms.

Since the 1930s, for most civilians, ownership of automatic firearms is banned in this country. And in 1986 the law was further strengthened to make ownership and possession of any new automatic firearm illegal. Converting a semi-automatic firearm to fire automatically is in violation of federal law too.

And as Sanders said, “Common sense suggests that we have got to do everything possible to prevent the conversion of semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles. If not, the 1986 law means nothing.”

So let’s talk about devices that you can buy on the internet for about $200, like a bump stock, that make a semi-automatic rifle capable of acting like an automatic one. The federal government does not consider these kits to violate the law because they are external to the mechanism of the gun.

While in the military I used to carry an assault rifle for a living. At one time in my life I could say I fired most every type of assault rifle in the world. These weapons are highly lethal, especially with their automatic capability. There is no need to have such capability in civilian life.

With the ability to convert a semi-automatic rifle to an automatic rifle, these devices may not technically violate federal law. But they certainly violate the spirit of that law that bans such firearms and has for a long time.

There is a line that is crossed when automatic weapons fire rains bullets down on innocent people. That line was crossed in Las Vegas. Congress should pass a law that bans these conversion devices.

Mike Smith is a regular columnist for Vermont Business Magazine and VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.