Spending Christmas with family in the Washington, D.C. area was a happy event. But the spirit of Christmas this year was marred by the shocking news from Newtown, Connecticut, about the killing of twenty grade school kids in their classroom by a lone gunman wielding a military-style assault weapon and semi-automatic handguns.
A few days later, in Webster, New York, firefighters who responded to a fire in a home were ambushed by a shooter who killed two of them and severely wounded two more before turning the gun on himself. And in the Middle East, the relentless killing of civilians by Syria's armed forces reminded Americans that we live in a dangerous world, at home and abroad.
As the bodies of the twenty children killed in Newtown were buried and the nation grieved, calls intensified across the country for more restrictions on guns, especially assault rifles with ammunition clips holding up to thirty cartridges. Senator Diane Feinstein of California pledged to introduce legislation this month to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that had expired in 2004.
President Obama, under pressure across the country to show leadership in the wake of these tragedies, appointed Vice President Biden to lead a task force to propose legislation to curb gun violence. Obama also supports a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity clips.
For years the National Rifle Association (NRA) has resisted attempts to limit the right of citizens to buy any kind of arms, including military-type weapons, on the grounds that the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees that right. It resists curbs on the sale of assault weapons whose primary military function is to kill people. Instead, the NRA proposes that every school across the United States should have an armed policeman to protect the children.
This plan was offered by Wayne La Pierre, the NRA's chief, in a televised press conference after the Newtown disaster. While the idea was ridiculed by many media commentators and civic leaders across the country, it resonates with parents of grade schoolers who fear leaving their children exposed in classrooms to a gun-wielding intruder. Some schools, including in New York City, already provide security guards in schools, with mixed results.
There is major risk, in my view, of putting armed guards in public schools across the country: the likelihood that our educational institutions will become armed camps where children are taught to fear as well as to study. In addition, local school boards, already strapped for funds, will find it difficult to pay for security guards in their schools.
The NRA argues Americans are safer in public places if more people carry guns because, it says, that will dissuade criminals from threatening them. Many states permit residents to carry concealed, registered handguns for protection. But the idea of turning public schools into fortresses by having police patrolling the corridors is a fundamental shift away from the country's historic approach to public education.
A major motivation driving the NRA's adamant stand against limitations on firearms is this: If government can control the sale of one type of weapon, notably assault weapons, this will open the door to additional restrictions that, in time, will lead to banning the sale of hand guns and hunting rifles. This extreme view is designed to dissuade members of Congress from accepting any legislation that limits the sale of guns.
Opinion polls show that Americans think the country is less safe with the sale of military-type weapons at guns shows. They also favor stricter laws on gun sales in general, and a limit on the size of ammunition clips. Still, a large majority continues to oppose any restrictions on the sale of hand guns. ("Polls indicate minor shifts in view on guns, laws," Wash. Post, Dec. 31)
The reality is that semi-automatic weapons, with clips that fire up to thirty rounds without reloading, are not used for hunting or even protection in a home. They are designed to kill people in large numbers, as happened in the Newtown massacre.
Many Americans argue that the remedy to preventing these tragedies is to identify early the persons with mental problems, and provide them with counseling and needed care to turn them away from violence. While there is merit in this view, it is a long-term project that does not, in the short term, protect kids in schools, patrons in theaters, or worshipers in churches against an angry misfit who has access to a semi-automatic handgun or assault rifle.
One idea that has received little publicity is for Congress to impose a federal tax on the ammunition used in assault weapons. This might be a way to limit their attractiveness to gun enthusiasts who like to use them at firing ranges. States could also impose a tax on all ammunition, as they do on liquor, cigarettes, gasoline, theater tickets, etc. Taxes may not stop a killer who is determined to get ammunition, but it could reduce the use of military-style guns.
In sum, it's time for Americans and our Congress to recognize that the massive proliferation of guns in this country is dangerous to public safety. And the time is late.
File last modified on Monday, 10-JAN-2013 5:52 PM EST