National Sickness: No Debate Allowed on Civilians Owning Weapons of War

Three fatal mass shootings within three weeks should be providing an opportunity for a national conversation on civilians having easy access to semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips that are designed for use in war. Two of the killers in these cases were known by family and/or medical personnel to be dealing with mental issues while the third had generated at least some attention from both government and private groups that monitor groups harboring violent extreme racist views. Despite these clear warning signs in the shooters’ backgrounds, all three legally purchased and possessed their weapons that were designed for wartime use.

Instead of the nation assessing what can be done to prevent weapons designed solely for killing large numbers of people getting into the hands of those who are most likely to put them to that use, we have major players in our society fanning some of the issues that contribute to the problem. Last week, Congressman Joe Walsh delivered a speech casting Muslims as dangerous extremists bent on killing:

“One thing I’m sure of is that there are people in this country – there is a radical strain of Islam in this country -– it’s not just over there –- trying to kill Americans every week. It is a real threat, and it is a threat that is much more at home now than it was after 9/11,” Walsh said.

Walsh went on to claim that radical Islam had found its way into the Chicago suburbs, including some that he represents.

It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove. It’s in Addison. It’s in Elgin. It’s here,” he said.

Just a few days later, a man was arrested in nearby Morton Grove for firing at a mosque while people were inside praying. Fortunately, this time the shooter only used a pellet gun instead of a weapon of war, which could have led to yet another disaster.

Joe Walsh and other extremists in Congress like Michele Bachmann and Steve King happily spout their venom that fires up racists, but we also learned this week that the man behind the 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on right wing extremist groups capable of violence had his report repudiated and his team dissolved. He subsequently left DHS. Both Democracy Now and Danger Room have chronicled Johnson’s plight. Sadly, Johnson’s work was quite accurate when it came to the shooting at the Sikh temple. From Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room:

Daryl Johnson had a sinking feeling when he started seeing TV reports on Sunday about a shooting in a Wisconsin temple. “I told my wife, ‘This is likely a hate crime perpetrated by a white supremacist who may have had military experience,’” Johnson recalls.

It was anything but a lucky guess on Johnson’s part. He spent 15 years studying domestic terrorist groups — particularly white supremacists and neo-Nazis — as a government counterterrorism analyst, the last six of them at the Department of Homeland Security. There, he even homebrewed his own database on far-right extremist groups on an Oracle platform, allowing his analysts to compile and sift reporting in the media and other law-enforcement agencies on radical and potentially violent groups.

But Johnson’s career took an unexpected turn in 2009, when an analysis he wrote on the rise of “Right-Wing Extremism” (.pdf) sparked a political controversy. Under pressure from conservatives, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) repudiated Johnson’s paper — an especially bitter pill for him to swallow now that Wade Michael Page, a suspected white supremacist, killed at least six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. For Johnson, the shooting was a reminder that the government’s counterterrorism efforts are almost exclusively focused on al-Qaida, even as non-Islamist groups threaten Americans domestically.

“DHS is scoffing at the mission of doing domestic counterterrorism, as is Congress,” Johnson tells Danger Room. “There’ve been no hearings about the rising white supremacist threat, but there’s been a long list of attacks over the last few years. But they still hold hearings about Muslim extremism. It’s out of balance.” But even if that balance was reset, he concedes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the feds could have found Page before Sunday’s rampage.

Despite the clear association of semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips with the recent mass killings, conventional political wisdom still says that no real action will be taken to control them. The myth that the NRA can defeat any pro-gun control candidate and that the loss of Congress by the Democrats in 1994 was due to the automatic weapon ban means that very few politicians have the courage to advocate new controls.

Another barrier to bringing back controls is that the original ban is described as not being effective. But that lack of effectiveness very likely was due to how incomplete a measure it was:

The expiration Monday of a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons means firearms like AK-47s, Uzis and TEC-9s can now be legally bought — a development that has critics upset and gun owners pleased.

The 1994 ban, signed by then President Clinton, outlawed 19 types of military-style assault weapons. A clause directed that the ban expire unless Congress specifically reauthorized it, which it did not.

Studies done by pro- and anti-gun groups as well as the Justice Department show conflicting results on whether the ban helped reduce crime. Loopholes allowed manufacturers to keep many weapons on the market simply by changing their names or altering some of their features or accessories.

High capacity clips were also included in the 1994 ban. Here is how gun advocates celebrated the end of the ban. From the same article:

Under the 1994 ban, the maximum capacity of a magazine was set at 10 rounds. That sent the price of high-capacity magazines through the roof, Davis said, even though magazines manufactured before the ban were protected by a “grandfather” provision and could still be sold.

Now, some gun manufacturers are planning to give away high-capacity magazines as bonuses for buying their weapons. Sales of formerly banned gun accessories, such as flash suppressors and folding stocks, are also expected to take off.

No, we can’t have a national discussion on whether there is a way to take weapons designed for war off of the consumer market, even when we have a disturbing uptick in their designed use to kill large numbers of people. Instead, we get a new television show that glorifies war and could make even more people want the weapons of war in their households.

21 replies
  1. Eric Hodgdon says:

    If the Second Amendment was written to enable a militia to be prepared for war, then shouldn’t prospective militia members be armed with these ‘military-types’ of weapons?

    Instilling responsibility with regular training, and for the purpose of firearms is completely missing in America. And, with our governments all to quick to resort to violence sets and sends the wrong message.

    Sure, ban ‘all’ firearms, but as long as our governments use violence in our streets, and jump to invading countries for ‘their’ global domination plans, why bother with this issue?

  2. thatvisionthing says:

    Well, now here you’re getting to the crux of the thing. If psychopaths shouldn’t have weapons of war, then corporations (= psychopaths shouldn’t have them and shouldn’t be able to make them and write the laws and buy the legislators and presidents and bureaucracies who buy the weapons and start the wars and keep the wars going endlessly, and expand them so that every citizen is a potential target, and militarize the police and…

    MAD worlds should be illegal, no? And then you get to court…

  3. thatvisionthing says:

    No, we can’t have a national discussion on whether there is a way to take weapons designed for war off of the consumer market,

    National discussion, in this might-makes-right world? I’m trying to think, do we have national discussions anymore?

    I’m back to my epiphany, that nullifying juries were the lynchpin of the Constitution, the ubiquitous check and balance on all, the overriding underlying thing that made us a conscientous, empathetic and reasonable country rather than an exercise in an authority maze that keeps all conscience, empathy and reason out of power. Who expects anyone but a psychopath to have power now? That’s what power means.

    And, I miss Mary.

  4. lefty665 says:

    We do need a national discussion. A prerequisite is getting the nomenclature right.

    Magazines enclose one or more rounds of ammunition, clips hold rounds at the base and allow them to be individually inserted into a magazine.

    Samuel Colt patented the first “semi automatic” revolver when Andrew Jackson was president and John Marshall was still Chief Justice. “Semi automatic” meaning that the round is positioned for firing when the trigger is pulled or “self loading” when firing a round causes the next round to be chambered. They have been accepted in our society for around 175 years. Pretending this is some awful new function that was until recently wholly the province of military assault weapons does not further the discussion.

    We can thank Al Capone and the gangsters in the ’30’s for the ban on fully automatic assault weapons. Their use of automatic weapons is what spurred legislation to ban them.

    It does not help a rational discussion to demonize guns that are “styled” like military weapons. That describes what they look like, not how they work. Military weapons have full auto capabilities. It has not ever been legal to buy a full auto AK-47 in the US.

    It makes no sense to decide which guns should be banned on the basis of aesthetics when they work alike. This ugly gun gets banned, and that more gracefully designed piece does not. That was a basic defect in the ’94 legislation. That approach did not work, why repeat it?

    It seems that part of our failure to have a rational national dialog stems from people talking past each other. Failure to get the nomenclature right and to argue substantively invites being discounted on all issues.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The executive, Congress and judiciary had no problem blowing great holes into the First Ten Amendments; they have largely gutted the Fourth, for example. That would suggest that valid public purposes would readily permit restrictions imposed on the reach of the Second. All that’s missing is the political will, and the willingness to confront a lobbying arm more powerful than anything except perhaps the arm twisting of the pro-Israel lobby.

  6. Jessica says:

    “It seems that part of our failure to have a rational national dialog stems from people talking past each other. Failure to get the nomenclature right and to argue substantively invites being discounted on all issues.”

    Good stuff, right on the mark.

  7. lefty665 says:

    @thatvisionthing: Thank you, it sure would.

    Shades of the original Crocodile Dundee movie “That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife” as he brandishes a foot long pig sticker. That’s not an assault weapon, a Predator packing a Hellfire is an ASSAULT WEAPON.

    Something more than a million innocents have been killed by Americans acting under grants of public authority using real assault weapons. That is just in this millennium, and it’s young yet. Oppenheimer was so 20th century, “I am become death” indeed. He failed to understand the magnitude of death we have learned to dispense by “conventional” assault weapons, although the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo et al were harbingers.

    Which is crazier, a schitzy paranoid who kills innocents in a movie theater face to face, or a group that sits around at a regularly scheduled weekly meeting, and with premeditation and malice aforethought dispenses death via “joystick” to innocents right along with the bad guys half way around the world? Which could reasonably plead insanity as a defense? Which will come back and do it again next week? Which is a crime, and which a crime against humanity?

    Every innocent death is a tragedy. Where are our priorities? Where is the outrage that scales to match the scope of death dispensed by those we have elected to represent us?

  8. lefty665 says:

    @Jessica: Thank you.

    S. I. Hayakawa wrote long ago (Symbol, Status and Personality – a wonderful book) that we tend to confuse things with what we call them. That stuck with me.

    There have been a lot of pejorative labels bandied about with guns. Sort of the flip side of calling pro-choice murder, and just about as productive.

  9. Eric Hodgdon says:

    @lefty665 & @Jessica: Thank You

    Terms with a single definition, understood the same way by most, will do wonders for communicating, however, it requires work – effort.

    Guns – Firearms
    Bullets – Ammo – Rounds
    Loaded – Chambered
    Fire – Shoot
    Pistol – Handgun
    Clip – Magazine

    French – English – German – Latin – Greek

    Shovel – Spade

  10. Fraud Guy says:

    Joe Walsh, who had a commercial on during the Olympics closing ceremony stating that we need to support the children and families of our country, even though he had $100K+ due in child support at one point.

  11. AN says:

    So you’re very concerned about Americans’ 4th amendment rights, as well we should all be. But you’d love for the government to trample on our second amendment rights? And while not wanting to live under an overly powerful authoritarian government, you want to give them a complete monopoly on violence and remove the only possibility citizens have to protect themselves? You cant pick and choose the civil rights you like. As much as I love almost all your other work, this hypocritical anti-civil rights stuff is getting pretty old.

  12. Jim White says:

    @AN: While we’re on the topic of picking and choosing, then I guess you’re for leaving out that whole “well regulated militia” bit so that nobody tramples on your rights to have weapons that are designed solely to kill large numbers of people in a short time?

    Okay then.

  13. AN says:

    The 2nd amendment is to protect us from the government above all, not for hunting. So yes, that’s what I want. Being able to own the standard small arms in use by our and other militaries is the idea and has always been the norm. And militia per the definition at the time is every able bodied male citizen period. Has nothing to do with an organized military force.

    The 2nd amendment is just as critical in being a check on government power as the rest and just as important a civil right as freedom of speech, religiion, from unreasonable search, etc. You can’t suddenly decide we need to eliminate everyone’s rights because a tiny number of people abuse them. People will always abuse freedom.

  14. lefty665 says:

    @Jim White: “weapons that are designed solely to kill large numbers of people in a short time”

    Jim, you do know don’t you that current military assault weapon rounds are primarily designed to wound and incapacitate, not kill? The idea being that a wounded soldier takes several others out of combat to care for him/her, a dead soldier does not. Pretty gruesome (goes back a long time, at least to breaking the Greek phalanx), but another illustration that getting basic terms right is critical to having an informed discussion.

    Our current military round is a minor adaptation of a civilian “varmit” cartridge. It replaced one that was/is used to hunt bigger (human sized) game like deer. At close range a shotgun, even small bore and single shot, is far and away the most devastating firearm.

  15. liberalrob says:

    @AN: Have you thought about what that means, when you say “the 2nd amendment is to protect us from the government above all, not for hunting…the 2nd amendment is just as critical in being a check on government power…”? Just how is that protection from government and check on government power to be accomplished?

    You can’t deny that there are many right-wing “militias” already in existence in this country. It’s probably only a matter of time before we start seeing left-wing “militias” organized as well. And then we’ll have the lovely situation of these left- and right-wing militias having firefights in the streets, armed with modern military equipment that both sides have legally purchased, duking it out over who gets to be the one to take control of the government and bring about their utopia by force of arms.


  16. AN says:

    @liberalrob: A heavily armed civilian population is firstly a deterrent and secondly able to use violence. Consider how well Iraqis have resisted US occupation and Afghans have resisted both Russian and US occupation, not to mention countless insurgencies throughout the past two centuries.

    For people who want to ban guns, just be honest and say that you want to amend the constitution. I will radically disagree with that, but I will respect your suggestion especially because you recognize that a constitutional amendment is the only legal method to do so. Then we can disagree and discuss, but until then anti-gun folks are no better than the Bush administration violating civil rights with illegal NSA wiretaps, Obama assassinating American citizens without due process or any number of long government abuses against civil liberties.

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