President Obama never said the words “gun control” during his speech at the memorial to the victims of the Newtown shooting last night. But when he said, “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction,” that was a clear signal he would use the appalling murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School to pursue some sort of new restrictions on gun ownership. The president said the fact that “the politics are too hard”–a reference to the ability of the National Rifle Association to tie up gun legislation rather than any difficulties associated with efforts to prioritize mental health–could not be allowed to prevent the nation from trying to prevent future tragedies.
The nation’s shock and grief over the murder of children by a gun-wielding madman makes this a propitious moment for another try at instituting an assault weapons ban. Even a staunch opponent of gun laws such as West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin said today on “Morning Joe” that he was thinking it was time to “move beyond rhetoric” about changing gun laws. Manchin said that as a hunter he never had more than three bullets in his rifle, a statement that would appear to place him on the side of those who would seek to outlaw weapons that fire massive amounts of ammunition in seconds such as the one used by the shooter. But as even the New York Times reported yesterday, the AR-15 style rifle used by the killer is, in fact, not an exotic killing machine but “the most popular rifle in America” and apparently the gun preferred by target shooters and hunters, as well as those seeking a weapon for self-defense. That will complicate the efforts of those gun control advocates seeking to exploit the Newtown tragedy.
As Manchin’s comments about hunting show, even those who back gun rights understand that there is a reasonable argument to be made about the dangers associated with guns that have a massive fire capacity. Those who support Second Amendment rights to bear arms have over the years tended to oppose any legislation, no matter how reasonable, because they saw such measures as the thin edge of the wedge of a movement to prohibit all gun ownership. This placed the National Rifle Association in the same position as pro-abortion groups that oppose popular measures like parental consent because they fear they are stalking horses for the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
There isn’t much of a public constituency for weapons that make mass killings easier. But as the Times article makes clear, the difference between ordinary rifles used for hunting and target shooting and a military-style weapon are less stark than many of those who know little about guns think. More to the point, with so many of these weapons that can be easily adapted to fire many bullets rapidly already out there, it’s difficult to imagine how it would be possible to ban “assault weapons” without making most of the rifles owned and manufactured in the country illegal. Such a ban would be about as easy to enforce as the deportation of all illegal immigrants–something that all sensible people know is impossible.
That means that once the immediate shock about Newtown passes, it will be soon understood that the efforts of the president and his liberal congressional allies to pass some new gun law won’t prevent another such tragedy.
Rather than wasting the country’s time with what will be meaningless and divisive arguments about guns, the president would do better to think about what can be done to strengthen the ability of mental health professionals to spot and treat the sort of troubled souls that commit such crimes. That won’t guarantee that the Newtown shooting will be the last such slaughter that shocks the nation, but it might actually do some good.