My Turn: Another day, another mass shooting in America


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Here we go again. Another mass murder committed with a military-style weapon — this time in Las Vegas with 58 people dead and an additional more than five hundred wounded.

In response, a few elected officials called — again — for sensible gun control laws. Many politicians — again — ducked the issue. Others — again — invoked the well-worn phrase “honoring Second Amendment rights.”

Let’s look at the Second Amendment. It reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

You’d logically think that those words protect a collective right to a militia. And for most of America’s history, that’s how the amendment was interpreted.

But that changed in 2008 when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, decided District of Columbia v. Heller. In that decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court struck down as unconstitutional a District of Columbia law that banned many handguns and highly regulated other firearms kept in a person’s home.

The court for the first time held that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with a collective militia, but rather guarantees an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. Heller governed the federal enclave of the District of Columbia. Two years later, the court held that the Second Amendment right is so fundamental that it, like other fundamental protections in the Bill of Rights, applies to all state and local governments as well.

But Heller, which focuses on the right of self-defense, does not prohibit all gun control laws. Indeed Scalia’s opinion says, “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The court went on to state that military-type weapons, “M16 rifles and the like may be banned ...”

But by virtue of congressional inaction, they haven’t been.

A decade ago after the massacre at Virginia Tech, some congressional representatives pushed to limit the size of gun magazines. They lost.

Five years ago after the mass murder at a Newton, Connecticut elementary school, a bipartisan coalition introduced legislation in Congress to expand background checks. The proposal went nowhere.

Last year after the gruesome shootings at the Orlando nightclub, lawmakers tried to pass a law to stop gun sales to persons on terrorism watch lists. That proposal also died.

Now, after the carnage in Las Vegas, some legislators have demanded a ban on the firearm accessory called a “bump stock.” A bump stock makes a semi-automatic weapon function like a full-fledged machine gun. Bump stocks are an end run around the federal law, first passed in 1934 and then again in 1968, that prohibits individuals from owning machine guns and other high-velocity, rapid fire, highly lethal, automatic weapons.

Gun lobbyists no longer bother to claim that these weapons of mass destruction are intended for hunting or self-protection. Rather, they insist on their right to collect and shoot them at ranges. Implicit — sometimes explicit — in their argument is the justification that if the societal cost for the fun of collecting and shooting at gun ranges is mass murder, so be it. You can buy a bump stock for your AK-47 or AR-15 online starting at $99.99.

A sad irony of gun control legislation is that it works. Massachusetts, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country and, not coincidentally, also has one of the lowest rates of gun-caused homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. Massachusetts will likely soon prohibit the sale of bump stocks, which is all for the better but actually won’t matter much absent a national ban.

A federal prohibition on the sale of bump stocks is not a new idea. Such a provision was part of broader proposed legislation introduced in Congress in 2003 to renew the expired assault weapons ban. The National Rifle Association opposed that legislation, so you know the result.

The NRA, of course, has purchased the loyalty and votes of many representatives and senators through its campaign contributions. But it is short-sighted and inaccurate to lay all the blame for legislative failure on campaign money.

There are more gun clubs and gun shops in America than there are McDonald’s, and the NRA has organized those gun clubs into activist political cadres that forcefully advocate for its view that virtually any gun control law would violate the Second Amendment. That advocacy is legally wrong but politically significant.

Nonetheless, given the public outrage over Las Vegas, it seems at least possible that Congress could prohibit the sale of bump stocks. Passage of such a law would, however, constitute merely a barely noticeable step toward ending America’s regular mass killings and daily gun violence. Every year in the United States, guns kill 35,000 people and wound 75,000 more.

The apologists and strategists who enable such mass violence and carnage — once again — have offered their talking-point bromide of thoughts and prayers for the victims and exhortations to not politicize a tragedy. The gun lobby’s plan — once again — is to outwait our outrage and hope that demands for sensible gun control measures dissipate and become politically impotent.

Politicians are — once again — failing us. President Donald Trump responded to questions about possible gun control legislation by saying, “We are not going to talk about that today.” Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell disparaged the possibility of any legislative solution, calling any such discussion “premature.”

Which leads to my question, a question that demands an answer — once again: If not now, when?

William Newman is a Northampton-based civil rights attorney, weekday morning radio show host on WHMP/WHMQ and author of “When the War Came Home.”