Label a foreigner with a gun a terrorist, and the U.S. military will go anywhere to hunt him down and kill him. But Americans with guns? The U.S. government won’t touch them.
This isn’t an anti-gun screed.
My father hunted deer with his 30.06 deep in the woods of Maine, and taught me and my brothers how to shoot. I helped teach my two sons to shoot in the wilds of New Hampshire. But when you combine all-but-unrestricted access to near-automatic firearms with suicidal shooters, there needs to be a reckoning.
I embrace the Second Amendment, and I don’t want guns banned. I think I am like most Americans in this regard. But these mass firearm murders have become an itch that must be scratched.
The gun and terrorism issues show markedly different approaches to these vexing problems. Congress demands the Pentagon hunt down and kill every terrorist—and adds billions to its budget to do just that, as well as rightly spending freely to defend US troops in that fight. But it refuses to lift a (trigger) finger to curb domestic terror like that which occurred Sept. 30 in Las Vegas.
This hardly should come as a surprise. Congress has become increasingly pusillanimous during my nearly 40 years in Washington. Despite talk, they have refused to cut the deficit, reform entitlement programs, or fix the zany tax code. This week, we entered our 17th year of war in Afghanistan without lawmakers declaring war. So why should we expect them to do anything about their constituents slaughtering other constituents?
As a reporter for nearly 50 years, I’m pretty much of a First Amendment absolutist. OK: no shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, but that’s about it. That’s barred because—get this—it could lead to people getting hurt, or maybe even killed, in a stampede. But you can’t mow down innocent people by shouting vile epithets at them from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel.
Why are my staunch Second Amendment-backer friends so opposed to even the most common-sense measures to curb the gun violence in our midst? Do we really need semi-automatic weapons, huge magazines, suppressors—more commonly known as silencers—or “bump stocks,” a legal firearm option used in the Nevada massacre that all but turns semi-automatic weapons into machine guns?
Walmart and Cabela’s, two of the nation’s leading firearm retailers, apparently stopped selling bump stocks following the massacre. That’s sure to impress 58 families. And Congress hasn’t ruled out doing something about bump stocks. Such courage! Even the National Rifle Association broke its typical silence following such shootings to acknowledge such faux machine-gun devices might warrant restrictions. That’s a tentative, but tiny, step in the right direction.
Believing in the fundamental right to bear arms is a long way from the lust for personal firepower that has grown in this country since I was a kid. Why do so many gun advocates and their NRA allies have such a Pavlovian response to any suggestion that the nation needs to get a handle on this scourge? The notion that additional restrictions will inexorably lead to confiscations or bans is a black-and-white mindset in a gray world.
There are 89 guns in this country for every 100 people (No. 2 is Yemen, currently waging civil war, at 55). But 3 percent of American adults own half those guns (78 percent of Americans don’t own a firearm). Americans also possess an estimated 48 percent of the globe’s 650 million guns in civilian hands (that makes the Pentagon, which accounts for about 37% of global defense spending, look like a relative bargain).
One 2015 accounting noted that all of the nation’s wars killed 1,396,733 Americans…while 1,516,863—9 percent more—have been killed by guns, just since 1968. A Gallup survey earlier this year showed that 55 percent of Americans wanted tougher gun-control laws, with only 10 percent wanting them loosened. But that 10 percent, bolstered by more than $4 million in NRA campaign contributions to congressional candidates since 1998, has given the gun lobby unparalleled clout on Capitol Hill.
That’s led to some bizarre etymological debates. Joseph Lombardo, the Las Vegas sheriff, was asked if Stephen Paddock’s 58 murders were an act terrorism. “No, not at this point,” he said. “We believe it was a local individual.” That suggests the post-9/11 fear-mongering has worked, and that one must be an “other” to be a terrorist. A pathetic man can rake 22,000 people from high up in a nearby hotel, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500 more…and none (in charge) dare call it terrorism?
Some of my anti-gun friends say the Second Amendment was the Founding Fathers’ original sin. No, that’s not right either. A sound and fair Second Amendment makes sense for a nation spawned by those shrugging off the yoke of tyranny by force of arms.
But Second Amendment backers also have to acknowledge that the Founding Fathers had no inkling of modern firearms, and the NRA’s death grip on Congress. If the recent conservative embrace of “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution and its amendments means anything, it means that the Founders were familiar with Brown Bess muskets and Pennsylvania rifles, not AK-47s and the NRA.
The nation rightly goes to great lengths to prevent its men and woman in uniform from dying on the battlefield. U.S. taxpayers spent $50 billion on 25,000 Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles that the Pentagon rushed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many by air, to shield U.S. troops from $100 roadside bombs. The flip side of that fact is just as critical: we will spend billions—no, make that trillions—to track down a relatively few terrorists no matter where on the globe they’re hiding. We hurl $2.4 billion B-2 bombers and grim MQ-9 Reapers around the world, along with the cream of our young, to find them and wipe them out.
But our federal government won’t do a damn thing to halt homegrown mass murder. Both terrorists and murderers are vile scum, but what accounts for our skewed priorities?
An annual “Survey of American Fears” (is this a great country, or what?) by California’s Chapman University helps put this into perspective. Government corruption ranked #1 (60.6 percent of those surveyed said they were “afraid or very afraid” of it) in 2016. Terrorism was #2, cited by 41 percent, slightly higher than the 38.5 percent who feared “government restrictions on firearms and ammunition.” Interestingly, in light of that concern, “people I love dying” ranked 6th, at 38.1 percent, edging out the 35.5 percent who feared “The Affordable Health Care Act/Obamacare.”
Experts say fears can be irrational because our brains have evolved to make speedy judgments, fueled by emotion, that may have made sense in the past but no longer do. “Our biases reflect the choices that kept our ancestors alive,” neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz has written. “But we have yet to evolve similarly effective responses to statistics, media coverage, and fear-mongering politicians.”
Box cutters were turned into blades of mass destruction on Sept. 11, 2001. They were used by 19 Islamic terrorists to hijack four airliners and kill 2,977 innocents. Forty-eight hours later, before post-9/11 flights resumed, the U.S. government barred them from U.S. commercial aircraft.
No one asked that the handy tool be banned elsewhere. In fact, I just bought a nifty ceramic-bladed model to help me slice up all the Amazon boxes that arrive at my house each week. But banning box cutters from commercial air travel was a necessary step in dealing with the violence they enabled.
The same logic needs to apply to guns. Of course tighter restrictions won’t end firearm violence. But few want to abolish the Second Amendment. They just want reasonable, responsible restrictions to curb the carnage. Such limitations, well beyond banning bump stocks, are coming. The only question is how many more will have to die first.