Posted 3/17/18, edited 3/18/18
AGAIN, KIDS DIE. AGAIN, OUR “LEADERS” PRETEND.
Like the Dem’s, the GOP addresses gun lethality with make-believe
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. It was January 17, 1989. President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George H.W. Bush had three days left in office when Patrick Purdy, a deeply disturbed ex-con, used a store-bought AK-47 type rifle to kill five children and wound twenty-nine others and a teacher at a Stockton (Calif.) elementary school.
Bush then took over (those old enough to appreciate such things might remember his eminently forgettable V.P., Dan Quayle) Five-plus years later, on September 13, 1994 Bill Clinton signed the law commonly referred to as the Assault Weapons Act into effect. As a Yale Law School grad, the prez must have known that the measure, which was prompted by a series of shootings including the Stockton massacre, had been craftily worded to create the least possible impediment to the firearms industry. Indeed, the so-called “ban” was so easy to circumvent that when it expired ten years later the rabidly anti-gun Violence Policy Center shrugged:
…immediately after the 1994 law was enacted, the gun industry evaded it by making slight, cosmetic design changes to banned weapons—including those banned by name in the law – and continued to manufacture and sell these ‘post-ban’ or ‘copycat’ guns.
How toothless was the Federal law? How weak were its suggested replacements? As we’ve discussed in prior posts (click here and here), the original “ban” and subsequent schemes tinkered with ammunition capacity and external baubles such as handgrips and flash suppressors. None dared address that one aspect that makes “assault weapons” so dangerous to citizens and cops: fearsome ballistics, which defeat police body armor, pierce the front doors of homes and kill cops, and force outgunned police to deploy armored cars.
On April 20, 1999, about half-way through the Federal ban’s ten-year run, two teens staged a massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing twelve fellow students and a teacher and wounding twenty-one others. One of their guns, a Hi-Point 9mm. semi-automatic carbine (it was reportedly used to discharge nearly 100 rounds) came from a friend who got it from an unlicensed seller at a gun show. Hi-Point had purposely designed and manufactured this rifle to avoid the prohibitions in the Federal assault weapons law, and it remains in production in assorted calibers and configurations (including “California Compliant”) through the present day.
Columbine was followed by the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where a senior used two pistols to kill twenty-seven fellow students and five staff members and wound seventeen others. Although a judge had once declared the shooter mentally incompetent, his status was never relayed to the Federal background check system, so he was allowed to buy the guns used in the massacre. This gap in reporting was corrected in a bill signed by President George W. Bush in January 2008, one year before he left office. (Although Congress was under Democratic control, both firearms were handguns, so the incident wasn’t useful in supporting occasional attempts to renew the assault weapons law.)
But the Sandy Hook school massacre was different. In December 2012 a mentally-troubled (but not adjudicated) youth used his mother’s Bushmaster XM-15 rifle (an AR-15 variant) to murder twenty children and six employees. To date the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history, it took place as President Obama was finishing the third year of his first term. As one might expect, this tragic event invigorated the Democrats’ push for a renewed assault weapons ban. Of course, just like Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama, who once edited the prestigious Harvard Law Review, had to know that the purposely built-in limits of assault weapons laws make them virtually useless in the real world of gun massacres. But as a good Democrat, he pressed for the measure and attacked its GOP opponents with gusto. As one might expect, although the proposal was only slightly more restrictive than the expired law, with the GOP running the House it predictably went nowhere.
Then came last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Now in control of both the presidency and Congress, the Grand Old Party faced a dilemma. Digging into its basket of excuses, it promptly redirected the conversation to the worst gun massacre in American history, last October’s killing of fifty-eight persons and wounding of four-hundred eighty-nine on the Las Vegas strip. What enabled the carnage according to the GOP? Not the killer’s arsenal of (legal) AK-47 variants but an unfortunate accessory: the “bump stock” that enabled him to mimic full-auto fire.
Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays
Wait a moment! There was no “bump stock” at Marjory Stoneman, only a legal AR-15 rifle. No matter. Whether to draw attention away from the real problem, or simply appease a bunch of high schoolers who ditched class for a day, President Trump finally suggested a ban. On bump stocks:
Just a few moments ago, I signed a memorandum directing the Attorney General to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns. I expect that these critical regulations will be finalized…very soon.
As luck would have it, the president’s directive ran into a slight problem. Well aware of its shaky position regardless of who’s at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ATF, the agency charged with overseeing Federal gun control efforts (full disclosure: my one-time employer) has always been exceedingly careful to interpret firearms laws as narrowly as possible. Its desperation to “get along” was recently reflected in a January 2017 “White Paper” penned by the agency’s associate deputy director, which (of all things) favored legalizing firearms silencers and loosening regulatory oversight. (For our post on point click on “Silence,” below. For an in-depth news account click here. Incidentally, some agency wags characterized the document as a job application for the Director’s slot, which remains vacant.)
So what does ATF think about bump stocks? It passed judgment on those a decade ago. As far as the agency’s concerned, they’ve always been legal:
“Bump fire” stocks (bump stocks) are devices used with a semiautomatic firearm to increase the firearm's cyclic firing rate to mimic nearly continuous automatic fire. Since 2008, ATF has issued a total of 10 private letters in which it classified various bump stock devices to be unregulated parts or accessories, and not machineguns or machinegun conversion devices....
These words came from ATF’s December 2017 filing in the federal Register, which invited comments to a proposed regulation that would place bump stocks within the statutory definition of a “machinegun.” Stung by the Las Vegas massacre, the NRA announced that it favored studying the measure. At the same time, it also called for a Federal law to extend right-to-carry throughout the U.S. Meanwhile our Twitterer-in-Chief came out in support of arming America’s teachers. Just imagine the commercial possibilities! New lines of guns and holsters specially designed so that instructors can place highly accurate, devastatingly lethal fire from the chalkboard!
Sadly, when it comes to America and guns, ideology and selfishness have always ruled. Even in the most gun-hostile states, assault rifle “bans” emphasize everything except what really counts: ballistics. For an example of these laws’ ineffectiveness one need go back no further than December 2015, when a self-styled terrorist couple used state-legal AR-15 clones to murderous effect, killing fourteen and wounding twenty-two at a workplace party in San Bernardino, California.
We usually like to close with a catchy sentence or two, but here that doesn’t seem quite as important. In any case, let’s hope that whatever happens with “bump stocks” and pretend gun “bans”, neither courageous high-schoolers nor their elders will be fooled. As long as exceedingly lethal firearms continue being manufactured and sold while our “leaders” wink and nod, kids, adults and cops will keep being slaughtered. You can count on it.
UPDATE (5/19/18): On May 18 Dmitrios Pagourtzis, 17, stormed into his Texas high school and opened fire with his father’s pump-action shotgun and .38 caliber revolver, killing ten, mostly students, and wounding ten others, including the school police officer. Pagourtzis also scattered pipe bombs around campus. A good, well-liked student, he had made some disturbing social media posts and his diary contained written plans for the attack and his suicide. But he surrendered to police.
UPDATE (3/21/18): Austin Wyatt Rollins, 17, brought his father’s 9mm. handgun to a Maryland high school and opened fire. A school cop fired back. By the time it was over Rollins was dead, a 16-year old girl (his supposed target) was critically hurt and a 14-year old boy was shot in the leg.
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Ban the Damned Things! Massacre Control Bump Stocks Silence Isn’t Always Golden
A Ban in Name Only A Matter of Life and Death Reviving an Illusion
BAN THE DAMNED THINGS!
There’s no “regulating” the threat posed by highly lethal firearms
By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “We could not have been more prepared for this situation, which is what makes it so frustrating.” Broward County high school teacher Melissa Falkowski’s despairing words aptly convey the consequences of allowing highly lethal firearms to proliferate in civilian hands. With seventeen presently confirmed dead, the toll of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, exceeds that of the Columbine high school shooting, where twelve died, but is considerably fewer than the twenty-seven who fell at Sandy Hook Elementary. And if we include non-school shootings, far less than the fifty-eight recently murdered in Las Vegas.
Skim through the “Gun Control” section of this blog. Check out some of the posts linked below. It’s not that America didn’t anticipate what would most certainly happen again, nor, however futilely, try to get ready. Falkowski said that her school trained for such an event. “Broward County Schools has prepared us for this situation and still to have so many casualties, at least for me, it’s very emotional. Because I feel today like our government, our country has failed us and failed our kids and didn’t keep us safe.” When she and her students realized that this was no drill and that an “active shooter” was really about, simply following protocol (i.e., locking the classroom door and being quiet) clearly didn’t suffice. Improvising the best they could, the teacher and her nineteen frightened students huddled in a closet and nervously awaited SWAT.
Nikolas Cruz, the nineteen-year old shooter, had been a troubled teen. His erratic behavior led to numerous run-ins with peers, teachers and neighbors and to home visits by police. In 2016 Cruz posted online images of fresh, self-inflicted cuts on his arms and indicated that he planned to buy a gun. That led to a peremptory investigation by a Florida state agency, which ultimately accepted a mental health counselor’s conclusion that Cruz “was not at risk to harm himself or others.” But Cruz’s behavior didn’t improve and he was expelled from Stoneman Douglas. It’s now evident that he was the “Nikolas Cruz” who posted “Im going to be a professional school shooter” on a YouTube channel last fall.
Still, Cruz’s life wasn’t completely disorganized. A family had taken him in, he was attending GED classes and worked at a dollar store. This job was the likely source of funds for the AR-15 rifle he used in the massacre, which he legally purchased in 2017 at “Sunrise Tactical Supply,” a Coral Springs gun store. (Yes, eighteen year-olds can buy rifles. But not a handgun!)
Federal law prohibits acquisition or possession of firearms by anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” (18 USC 922[g]). Florida state law is roughly equivalent, but has elaborate safeguards apparently intended to assure its provisions are narrowly construed (790.065[a] et seq.) However, Cruz had never been formally adjudicated mentally ill, so the options for dealing with him were severely limited. His online activity, while in retrospect deeply disturbing, would have been insufficient to detain Cruz; had he consented to an evaluation, it’s doubtful that a physician would have found him incompetent.
In January the FBI got a hotline tip that Cruz had expressed a “desire to kill people” in social media posts. It was ignored. Given all the crazy, violent stuff that happens each day, being a jerk, talking about guns and posting crazy stuff online probably isn’t enough. Consider the case of another mass killer, Adam Lanza. In 2012 the unemployed, reclusive anorexic shot and killed his mother, then used her AR-15 style rifle to murder twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which he had once attended. According to a detailed official account, Lanza was diagnosed with serious mental problems as a teen. Unfortunately, he went mostly untreated. After the shootings, a woman with whom he connected online said that he was obsessed with mass murderers and profoundly depressed.
Had Lanza been brought to police attention, what could have officers done? Without his cooperation, very little. Connecticut law prohibits those with voluntary (rather than only court-compelled) admissions for a “psychiatric disability” from purchasing firearms. However, Lanza had never been hospitalized for mental treatment and there was little to suggest that he posed an imminent threat. Anyway, he didn’t need to buy guns: he used his mother’s.
Other mass shooters were even less likely to gain official attention. Consider Stephen Paddock, the high-stakes Las Vegas gambler who committed the worst gun massacre in American history. What seems most unusual about the tragedy is Paddock’s apparent normalcy and lack of motive. Some clues about his behavior have come to light. Paddock, who reportedly wagered as much as one million dollars a night, was supposedly suffering from “bouts of depression” caused by heavy losses. An autopsy revealed the presence of components of Valium, a potentially aggression-inducing drug that Paddock had been using to fight anxiety. Voluntarily taking Valium would not have restricted his firearms rights under either Federal or Nevada state law. So buy guns he did.
To drive the dilemma home scan the Wikipedia entries for other mass killers, say, Omar Mateen, who gunned down forty-nine persons and wounded fifty-eight at an Orlando nightclub, and Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who murdered fourteen at an employee get-together in San Bernardino, Calif. Based on what was then known, none seemed sufficiently “crazy” to gain attention, let alone involuntarily commit. It’s only when we peer through the retrospective lens that the warts come out. Bottom line: mass killers can easily blend into the background and slip through whatever filters society puts up.
What can be done? Eight years ago, in “Say Something,” we suggested that speaking out can help prevent the slaughter of family members and co-workers by angry men:
With more people having and carrying more guns you and I and our families are at increasing risk of being shot by someone who may suddenly go berserk. Counting on armed citizens to come to the rescue is delusional – in fact, they’re part of the problem. So here’s an idea. Let’s use the White House as a bully pulpit for a national campaign to remind everyone – gun owners, their friends, family members and co-workers – that guns and anger are a lethal combination. “Friends don’t let [angry] friends pack guns.” “If your [angry] friend has a gun, say something.” Take out ads in print and on TV, put up billboards, place posters at gun stores and firing ranges. It’s something worth considering.
More recently, “A Stitch in Time” suggested that police officers are ideally placed to identify mentally ill persons who may turn violent and refer them for help, voluntary or not, before the next crisis costs someone’s life:
First, there must be a process for filtering out persons who most need special attention….This would at a minimum include a substantial history of contacts and…input from field officers, who are in the best position to decide whether…the admittedly subjective threshold of dangerousness has been breached.
By all means encourage citizens to “say something.” Had officers contacted and admonished Lanza, it’s possible that he would not have carried through with his plot, at least not then. Police, though, are usually busy on other things. They may also be reluctant to stir things up, particularly when their authority is limited. And as we suggested above, many mass killers seem less likely than deranged, impulsively violent persons to act in ways that draw attention.
Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays
Moving away from the whom, let’s concentrate on the what. Each of the above-mentioned massacres was perpetrated with variants of the Colt AR-15 rifle: a Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223 caliber for Cruz; a Bushmaster XM-15 .223 caliber for Lanza; an arsenal of AR-types in .223 caliber and .308 caliber for Stephen Paddock; a SIG Sauer .223 caliber for Omar Mateen; and for Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, two .223 caliber AR-15 variants: a DPMS Panther Arms A15 .and a Smith & Wesson M&P15.
But wait: didn’t the Federal Assault Weapons ban supposedly put highly lethal weapons out of circulation? What if it was renewed? In “A Ban in Name Only” we pointed out that the law, which limited magazine capacity to ten rounds and prohibited external baubles such as flash suppressors, ignored what really matters. What makes “assault weapons” lethal is portability, lack of recoil, accuracy at range, rapid-fire capability, and, most importantly, their fearsome ballistics. Projectiles fired by such weapons penetrate body armor and create “temporary wound cavities” more than a dozen times the bullet diameter (from Vincent Di Maio, Gunshot Wounds, click here and here).
America’s cops face that threat each day. Ballistic vests normally worn on patrol are no match for powerful projectiles such as the .223, .308 and 7.62 (the caliber of the AK-47 variant that James T. Hodgkinson used to shoot up a Congressional baseball practice last June.) Just how deadly are these rounds? According to the FBI, 88 officers were feloniously killed with rifles between 2006-2015. The top three calibers responsible were 7.62 (27 deaths), .223 (25 deaths), and 30-06 (6 deaths.) Nineteen of these deaths were caused by rounds that penetrated body armor: three officers fell to the .223 caliber, three to .308, and six to the 7.62. It’s no surprise that American police have taken to using armored cars.
England also has a strong gun and hunting culture. But that’s where the resemblance ends. After the 1987 Hungerford massacre, where a 27-year old man gunned down sixteen persons with a handgun and two rifles, Britain banned all semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire. A subsequent mass shooting led to a virtual handgun ban. Now mostly limited to bolt-action hunting rifles, ordinary Britons have carried on chins-up, that is to say, superbly.
In contrast, when America felt pressed by a series of massacres, it passed a make-believe ban (enacted in 1994, it expired in 2004, and hardly anyone noticed.) Seven States and D.C. have come forward with supposedly more stringent laws. They mostly follow the California model, which prohibits specifically named semi-automatic rifles, including the original Colt AR-15 and its replacement, the “Sporter”, and requires that those with certain external features such as a handgrip have fixed magazines that can accept no more than ten rounds.
At the risk of redundancy, we’ll point out that as far as lethality goes, these additional “restrictions” are meaningless. Farook and Malik, for example, perpetrated the San Bernardino, Calif. massacre with a pair of California-legal AR-15 clones. (News accounts, summarized in a Wikipedia entry, detail how the couple easily modified the weapons to increase their ammunition capacity and facilitate reloading.)
In “Massacre Control” and earlier posts we suggested that a point system could be used to score lethality-related characteristics such as ammunition capacity, cyclic rate, accuracy at range, and, most importantly, ballistics. Guns whose total exceeds a certain threshold would be banned. Unfortunately, as California’s breast-thumping “tightening” of gun laws demonstrates, there is simply no appetite for seriously addressing lethality, nor its most crucial element: ballistics.
O.K., we can’t make guns significantly less lethal. What about restricting their acquisition? On first glance, purchase laws seem like a great idea. But Sutherland Springs, Texas shooter Devin Kelley, who had a disqualifying military court-martial conviction for spousal abuse, bought the .223 rifle he would use to murder twenty-six parishioners in a store. How could that happen? Well, because of an oversight, military authorities never passed on the fact of his conviction to the FBI. In any event, most mass killers aren’t felons. Or adjudicated mental defectives. Or subject to a gun-violence restraining order, an approach that some States have adopted. Many, including Cruz, Paddock and Mateen, bought their firearms at gun stores.
Then again, it’s hardly necessary to belly up to a counter. Farook and Malik got their .223’s from a friend who bought them at a store. Lanza used his mother’s guns. As discussed in past posts (see, for example, “Where Do They Come From?”) there are so many avenues to gun acquisition – family and friends, illegal “street” dealers, gun shows, the Internet – that getting a gun requires hardly any effort. Had the gun dealer turned Kelley away he could have easily gone to a gun show – Texas has them regularly – and picked up several rifles from a private party without as much as showing I.D.
Bottom line: as long as lethal semi-automatic rifles continue to be produced, sold and traded, half-hearted “bans” won’t work. That’s why England took its big step, banning all beyond .22 rimfire. And why we must follow.
Must? Did you say, must? Shouldn’t we first consider things in an objective forum? For sure. After cranking out “Massacre Control” (incidentally, his 300th. post) your blogger contacted the heads of university criminal justice programs around the country, urging them to stage a symposium that would examine the issue objectively. So far, all have passed.
Really, in this gun-besotted land, where the forces of selfishness and “me-ism” prevail, only one thing seems likely. Another massacre. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another….
p.s. If you’ve come this far, check out the very last title in “Related Posts,” below. “Disturbed...” is our blog’s very first gun control essay. It was posted December 12, 2007.
UPDATE (5/31/18): Videos on Nikolas Cruz’s cellphone announced that hw would be the “next school shooter of 2018” and explained why: “I live a lone life. I live in seclusion and solitude. I hate everyone and everything. But the power of my AR you will all know who I am...I had enough of being told that I’m an idiot and a dumbass. You’re all stupid and brainwashed by the political and government programs.”
UPDATE (4/23/18): On April 22 a naked, delusional man armed stormed into a Nashville restaurant and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, killing four and wounding seven. Travis Reinking, 31, was arrested the next day. He had been arrested in July 2017 for breaching the White House perimeter. Four guns including the AR-15 were taken from him and later released to his father.
UPDATE (4/6/18): On April 3 Nasim Aghdam, a woman in her 30s, opened fire with a pistol at YouTube in San Bruno, wounding three. She then shot herself dead. Aghdam, a YouTube user angry with the company’s policies, legally purchased the gun from a San Diego gun store in January.
UPDATE (3/21/18): As early as 2016 school employees and the deputy sheriff mentioned below were so concerned about spoken threats made by Nikolas Cruz that they recommended he be committed for evaluation. His deceased mother’s friend, where he was living, repeatedly called 911 and gave him an ultimatum to get rid of his gun. But police reportedly said nothing could be done.
UPDATE (3/11/18): In the New York Times and Washington Post, illustrated features about the grievous damage inflicted on the human body by ultra high-velocity projectiles such as those fired by AR-15 style rifles.
UPDATE (3/9/18): Florida’s Governor signed into law a bill that lets some school employees carry concealed handguns, bans “bump stocks” and extends the State’s 3-day waiting period for handgun purchases to long guns. It also raises the minimum age to buy a rifle to 21, a provision that the NRA is challenging in court as a violation of the Second Amendment.
UPDATE (3/9/18): The Florida deputy whom President Trump and others excoriated for not entering Marjorie Stoneman High School said that a victim found outside and other indicia led him to believe that the shooter was outside. The first local police officer on scene followed his lead and also set up outside.
UPDATE (2/28/18): Dick’s Sporting Goods, a Pennsylvania-based chain that operates nearly 700 stores across the U.S. under various brands, said it will no longer sell assault-style semiautomatic rifles at any location. Its Chief Executive, Richard Stack, supports an outright ban on such weapons.
UPDATE (2/24/18): A woman who called the FBI’s tip line about Cruz on January 5 said she was worried he might sneak into a school “and just [start] shooting the place up.” A family friend had also recently conveyed fears about Cruz and his guns to the sheriff’s office. Cruz himself called 911 and said that his mother’s death was giving him problems.
UPDATE (2/23/18): A forensic psychiatrist told the New York Times that mass shootings are unlikely to be prevented through mental commitments: “Most of these shooters are angry, antisocial individuals you cannot spot in advance, and even if you could, you don’t have the right to institutionalize them.” Another authored an op-ed to the same effect.
UPDATE (2/21/18): Copycat threats are keeping L.A.-area authorities busy. In one incident deputies arrested a 17-year old high school student who had threatened to shoot up his high school “in three weeks.” At his home deputies found two AR-15 rifles plus other weapons and ammunition. Police also arrested a 27-year old man who had threatened a college. Two loaded AR-15’s, two handguns and a large quantity of ammunition were seized at his residence.
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Again, Kids Die Massacre Control Bump Stocks Aren’t the (Real) Problem A Lost Cause
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Long Live Gun Control Disturbed person+gun=killer, disturbed person+assault rifle = mass murderer