Re­vive the as­sault weapon ban

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The mas­sacre of 26 church­go­ers Sun­day in Suther­land Springs, Texas, prompted the pre­dictable ques­tion of how the killer, a for­mer Air Force ser­vice­man court-mar­tialed for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, was able to ob­tain the mil­i­tary-style ri­fle he used with such cold ef­fi­ciency. It turns out that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment failed to fol­low its own laws. The Air Force did not re­port Devin Kel­ley’s do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence con­vic­tion or his un­re­lated stint in a men­tal health fa­cil­ity to the na­tional data­bases that gun deal­ers use to check the back­grounds of peo­ple who want to buy guns. That mis­take al­lowed Kel­ley to pur­chase the gun he used in the mas­sacre at the church.

The De­fense Depart­ment ob­vi­ously needs to ad­dress this ab­ject fail­ure, but the cold hard truth is that even if Kel­ley had flunked his back­ground check, he still could have bought guns through an un­reg­u­lated pri­vate sale — at a gun show, say, in Texas or 31 other states that take a hands-off ap­proach to such events. Congress should fix that prob­lem by mak­ing back­ground checks manda­tory for all gun sales, not just those han­dled through li­censed deal­ers.

But even then, as­sault weapons like the one Kel­ley used will re­main for sale in this coun­try, and that’s the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem. Civil­ians have no le­git­i­mate rea­son to own mil­i­tary-style firearms. These rapid­fire weapons, with their high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines and quick reloads, are de­signed for one pur­pose: to kill as many peo­ple as quickly as pos­si­ble.

Gun ad­vo­cates ar­gue that the 2nd Amend­ment gives them the right to own such weapons, but it does not. The Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller de­ci­sion (which we think was wrongly de­cided) rec­og­nized a right to own a firearm in the home for self-pro­tec­tion, but held that the own­er­ship right is not ab­so­lute, is sub­ject to reg­u­la­tion, and can be lim­ited to firearms cur­rently “in com­mon use.” By some es­ti­mates, as­saults weapons ac­count for only about 3% of the es­ti­mated 300 mil­lion guns in our col­lec­tive ar­se­nal. That’s not “in com­mon use.”

The na­tion banned the sale of as­sault weapons for a decade un­til Congress let it lapse in 2004, and the NRA has blocked ef­forts to re­in­state it. In the wake of the Las Ve­gas and Texas mas­sacres, U.S. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.) — who wrote the orig­i­nal 1994 bill — has de­cided to try again.

One of the main com­plaints about the orig­i­nal ban was that it was too easy for gun mak­ers to cir­cum­vent. Fe­in­stein’s new bill tries to ad­dress that prob­lem by defin­ing an as­sault weapon as any gun that can use a de­tach­able am­mu­ni­tion clip and that has one or more spe­cific mil­i­tary-style fea­tures, such as a tele­scop­ing stock or a pis­tol grip. The mea­sure also would ex­plic­itly ban 205 spe­cific mod­els, in­clud­ing the AR-15, while ex­empt­ing by name 2,200 firearms de­signed for hunt­ing, re­cre­ation or home pro­tec­tion.

In ad­di­tion, the bill would ban “bump fire” stocks, the de­vice Steven Pad­dock used last month to fire his semi­au­to­matic ri­fles as though they were ma­chine guns as he killed 58 peo­ple from his sniper’s perch above a Las Ve­gas con­cert site. (Separate ef­forts to ban bump stocks have stalled in Congress, which is out­ra­geous.) And the mea­sure would out­law am­mu­ni­tion mag­a­zines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

Par­al­lel­ing the orig­i­nal ban, Fe­in­stein’s pro­posed law would not ap­ply to any­one who owns such weapons or de­vices at the time the law goes into ef­fect. The bill would cre­ate a buy-back pro­gram for those who want to get rid of their killing ma­chines, but it would not be manda­tory. Those el­e­ments are a nod to the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity of Congress, and the pas­sions of the gun-owner crowd. Ban­ning fu­ture sales is a tough enough sell; any mea­sure that smacks of con­fis­ca­tion would go nowhere. Fe­in­stein’s mea­sure is a step in the right di­rec­tion, and we urge Congress to pass it. But if the idea is to rid so­ci­ety of firearms that do not be­long in the hands of pri­vate cit­i­zens, then we need to find a way to do that.

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