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Ornstein: If Our Societal Equation Includes Guns, Let’s Act to Contain Them

The horrific Newtown, Conn., massacre has gripped and appalled the nation, and it dramatically changed the national conversation about guns. When a gun rights advocate as prominent as Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., talks about the irrelevancy of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines to hunters or other legitimate gun users, it is a sign that the tectonic plates have shifted.

What to do? A few things should be clear. The first is that nothing will prevent all future massacres carried out by individuals with mental illnesses or evil people intent on perpetrating terrorist acts. But there are actions that can be taken that will limit the damage and save some lives. The same day that Newtown occurred, there was a savage attack at a school in China — this time with a disturbed man wielding a knife. Twenty-three kids were injured — none were killed. At the same time, we are not going to eliminate guns from our societal equation. But we can act to contain the lethal, widespread damage that can be done with semi-automatic weapons using bullets designed to inflict maximum damage to human beings, or with high-capacity magazines that enable an individual to fire dozens or hundreds of bullets within seconds or minutes.

Guns such as the Bushmaster that was used to murder 6-year-olds, with bullets that spread inside their bodies to damage tissue even more, should be banned, period. So should all high-capacity magazines. I understand that it does not take long to switch magazines; but as the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy shows, that brief period can be enough for someone to be able to subdue a perpetrator, or even for some potential victims to escape. Without the weapon he used, Adam Lanza might have killed 12 or 15 of these poor kids instead of 20, meaning five or eight more precious lives saved. The ban on such guns should be more stringent than the original assault weapons ban, which had way too many loopholes, allowing manufacturers to make minor adjustments on some guns to make them legal. And the ban should also include an Australia-style buyback program to take more of these lethal weapons off the streets.

Next, it is well worth looking at ideas for enhanced registration and ownership requirements for guns; journalist Marc Ambinder has come up with several really good ones. He suggests, “Everyone who wants to have access to a gun can do so provided they register their weapon and get state-sanctioned training. The types of guns that people can carry on their persons ought to be limited to those made legitimately for self-defense. The gun show loophole should be closed; with the exception of family-to-family transactions or old weapons given as gifts, every sale or exchange of a weapon must be registered. The instant background check will be replaced for new gun owners with a state-approved training course that includes a more extensive background check. (Each state course would have to meet basic federal guidelines but could differ in the particulars.) A tax on gun purchases would fund this new system. People would have access to guns; they could not be denied access to guns on the basis of anything other than mental fitness, failing their training, or having a criminal record. (Juvenile records count.)”

If these basic steps can be taken — and some of the requirements for background checks and notification of multiple sales of more deadly weapons can be done by executive action or executive order, and do not require legislation — we would go a long way toward a sensible regimen balancing the rights of gun ownership with the responsibilities that come along with it, and limiting in some ways the carnage that now is becoming sadly commonplace with these instances of mass murder.

Of course, it would be nice to go further. Many years ago, I wrote a column lauding the idea of the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., to limit bullets and not guns. Guns last forever; bullets do not. To be sure, bullets kept under pristine conditions can be functional for decades, but most are not. There should be ways to limit and track ammunition purchases, even as we ban completely the sale and availability of cop-killer bullets and other deadly ones.

A few decades ago, the National Rifle Association was willing to have a dialogue at least about the responsibilities of gun ownership and to discuss reasonable boundaries. Then the Gun Owners of America outflanked the NRA on the right, challenging its supremacy in the gun world. It responded by making sure no one would be to the right of the NRA — and thereby abdicated its role as a responsible interlocuter. It will be fascinating to see whether, in this new climate, it doubles down on obduracy or returns to the table.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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