America Is Stuck with Assault Weapons
Despite the pleas of gun control advocates, it doesn't seem likely that the country will do much to prevent another Orlando.
In the first 48 hours since the worst mass shooting in United States history was committed by a gunman in a Orlando nightclub, authorities and the media have scrambled to pick apart the motives of the sick man who killed 49 people before being shot by police early Sunday. He was reportedly an admirer of ISIS and the Boston Marathon bombers, was consumed with homophobia, and, according to a former co-worker, frequently talked about killing people.
The question of what inspires a man—it's almost always a man—to pick up a gun and start shooting will always carry a morbid fascination. Mass murderers are motivated by everything from mental illness to a hatred of the West, but what unites many of them is the gun they carry. Far too often, that gun is a variant on the AR-15, an assault rifle beloved by gun fans for its customizability and derided by gun control advocates for making it too easy to kill too many people too quickly. In the wake of tragedies like Orlando, it's normal to ask Why? It's also becoming increasingly common to ask, Why are these people allowed to buy these guns?
After the shooting, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton reiterated her support for "commonsense gun safety reform," including a ban on assault weapons. That call was echoed by many others, including the notably pro–gun control New York Daily News, which called AR-15s a "mass murderer's best friend" and declared that the shooter was enabled by "a gun lobby that has long opposed efforts to keep assault weapons out of the hands of bloodthirsty maniacs."
The AR-15 was banned under the 1994 federal assault weapons ban that was in effect until 2004. Whether that ban did much to curb gun violence is still a matter of debate—most American firearm deaths are connected to handguns, not rifles. The law also focused too much on features that didn't affect a weapon's deadliness like barrel shrouds and pistol grips; generally, efforts to ban "assault weapons" are complicated by the vagueness of that term. Is every semiautomatic an assault weapon? Or just semiautomatic rifles? Does it matter what sort of handle a gun has?
The simplest route for gun control advocates would be a ban on magazines with more than ten rounds in them. It's been speculated that the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had these high-capacity magazines; in one video filmed by a bystander, he can be heard firing 20 shots in a few seconds. (The weapon the Orlando shooter used was a Sig Sauer MCX, which comes with a 30-round magazine.) A high-capacity magazine ban wouldn't have stopped Mateen from killing people, but if he had been forced to reload, it might have given the victims a better chance of overpowering him.
That argument will never wash with gun rights activists. Some claim high-capacity magazines are necessary in certain situations, like if a gun owner is confronted by multiple attackers or an angry mob. For these Second Amendment advocates, gun control is never, ever the answer. Though the NRA has been silent since the Orlando shooting, Donald Trump spoke on behalf of the gun-loving right Monday, when he told CNN ,"If you had some guns in that club the night that this took place, if you had guns on the other side, you wouldn't have had the tragedy that you had."
The Republican vision appears to be a world in which everyone, from schoolteachers to club-goers, is strapped to a piece at all times. By this line of reasoning, more guns are always better because they'll stop the criminals who will have guns no matter what the laws are. Gun owners, in this universe, are responsible citizens only a bit less virtuous than cops, and denying them access to any type of weapon would be a suppression of their constitutional rights.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the demonization of the AR-15 is only a little less delusional than the right's fetishization of the gun. Orlando was a horror unique in its scope, but the larger problem is the sheer quantity of shootings that take place in the US. As of June 10, before the Orlando attack, VICE estimated that 118 Americans had been killed in mass shootings in 2016. Memorial Day weekend saw an eruption of gun violence across the country; six people died and 48 were injured by firearms in Chicago alone. This sort of everyday death isn't the result of uniquely evil men getting their hands on Bad Guns—it's the consequence of having millions with arm's reach of everyday Americans who, it turns out, don't get any smarter or more sensible when they have a death machine in their hands.
A gun control debate focused on assault weapons is probably not going to end with a reduction in gun violence. The country had exactly that debate in 2012 after Adam Lanza murdered children with an AR-15, and nothing came of it. No mass shooting will convince the American right that guns are the problem—instead, the right will continue to argue that the problem is ISIS, or mental illness, or gun-free zones.
From that perspective, the policy solution seems to be to make sure 100 percent of the country's mentally ill are cared for. Or better yet, to look into everyone's hearts, figure out which ones are totally blackened with hate, and replace that hate with love. Without that sort of deus ex machina, though, Americans are left with a country where a very angry person can go into a store, buy a weapon, and a couple days later use it to kill 49 people.
It seems like it should be uncontroversial to find out ways to make that weapon a little less efficient, if only to make sure that the next angry person can only kill 48, or 40. Because there definitely will be a next angry person.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.