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, a target he’d chosen because his mother-in-law, to whom he had been sending threatening texts, is a member. (She wasn’t present Sunday, but her mother was — and was killed.)
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. Enthusiasts might get a kick out of shooting them, but that’s hardly reason to endanger the rest of us. These rapid-fire weapons, with their high-capacity magazines and quick reloads, are designed for one purpose: to kill as many people as quickly as possible. They do not belong in private hands.
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 echoed previous court decisions 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. Whether this Congress will entertain such an effort is, of course, the $54-million (the amount the NRA spent in the 2016 election) question.
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. For the sake of clarity, the measure also specifies by make and model 205 weapons that would be explicitly banned, 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.