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Opinion

Editorial: Banning firearm sales to suspected terrorists is a distraction. America needs real gun control

AR-15s
Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli/ Associated Press)

It made for pretty good drama. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) took the floor Wednesday to lead a filibuster on guns. It ended 15 hours later when the Republican leadership agreed to allow votes on two gun control amendments — one that could ban people who have been investigated for (but not necessarily charged or convicted of) terrorist connections anytime in the prior five years and another that could extend mandatory background checks to cover private sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It seemed for a moment that by allowing the votes to proceed, a significant step in tightening gun regulations might be on hand. 

But it’s not. We disagree with the Supreme Court that the 2nd Amendment gives individuals a constitutional right to own a gun, but as long as it is a court-recognized right, the government should not be able to undermine it based on nothing more than the suspicions of federal agents or a years-old investigation that went nowhere. Truly dangerous people should not have access to firearms, but there needs to be more to determine someone is dangerous than a closed case file in a federal investigator’s office. That raises troubling due process concerns.

As for the extension of mandatory background checks, that’s a sound and overdue idea. But it’s not a game-changer, and we’ve yet to see whether it will be approved over the objections of the National Rifle Assn. and its congressional allies.  All that’s been promised so far is that it will be voted on. 

Part of the solution to the problem would be to bar civilians from owning weapons like the military-style Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle wielded by the Orlando killer. Gun enthusiasts argue that such rifles are used predominantly for target shooting and hunting. Even if that’s true, it’s hard to find the logic in allowing the dissemination of weapons designed for one thing — to kill as many people as possible in a short period of time. Because these weapons are semiautomatic and can fire bullets as fast as a gunman can pull a trigger, they have the extra speed and lethality of a weapon of war, and there is no need for civilians to own them.

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But even that would be only a small step forward. In a sense, these debates are missing the real issue at the heart of America’s gun violence problem. The vast majority of gun deaths in the United States involve not military-style weapons, but handguns. In fact, less than 1% of killings each year come in the form of mass carnage like that in Orlando over the weekend, or in San Bernardino last December.

Gun and self-defense statistics that might surprise you -- and the NRA »

Mass killings — whether by terrorists or others — obscure our broader tragedy. According to national statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 31 people a day are shot to death in homicides, and another 58 people each day use guns to kill themselves. If we banned all military-style weapons tomorrow (and we should), we would still be a society awash in blood. That’s because we are a society awash in guns, and too many Americans   are all too willing to use them. No other industrialized society shares our infatuation with firearms, nor our death toll. This is due largely to the obscene political pull of the NRA, which has blocked meaningful gun control for decades.

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The Obama administration in January moved to tighten gun regulations and to force nearly everyone engaged in selling firearms — including online sellers and small-scale vendors at gun shows — to obtain a federal dealer’s license. That’s good.

Yet those are minor steps compared with the magnitude of the problem. As a nation, we have fallen into a familiar routine of horrified shock, public mourning, a little fist-shaking at the NRA and endless debates on social media that resolve nothing.

From the mass murders of children in Newtown, Conn., to the steady drum beat of homicides across the nation, we have yet to mount the kind of political will, and critical mass, to make a difference. Our mutual safety is held hostage by the gun industry, and by romanticized notions of rugged individuals standing off against a tyrannical government, or being the hero in a personal melodrama of imminent threat.

It’s long past time that reality won out over such fantasies. We are too advanced a society to stand for this. 

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