As a young officer in the Marine Corps, one of my first assignments was to serve on a board investigating the shooting of an enlisted man. The incident began when the shooter was ordered to march a prisoner from the Camp Lejeune base brig to a courtroom to face a court martial.
On the way the prisoner said to the Marine guarding him, “I’m going to run now. Don’t shoot me.” But Marines take their orders seriously and the guard opened fire with his M-1 rifle, the standard semi-automatic military rifle of the day. One round tore away part of the man’s back and killed him instantly.
When I saw pictures of the victim’s body, I was stunned. I had understood its function analytically, but until I saw its effects on the human body, I had no sense of the power or deadliness of a military rifle.
Unfortunately, I would go on to see many more victims of assault rifles in a journalism career that took me to wars in Vietnam, Lebanon and El Salvador. But it is the vision of that dead Marine that haunts me, and was fresh in my mind as I read about last month’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. The mental image of a child shot 11 times, even with a firearm not as lethal as an M-1, is too horrible to consider. No wonder the first responders have had trouble coping with the scenes they encountered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In 1994, Congress banned military assault-style weapons. But the ban ran out after 10 years and lawmakers — cowed by the bluster and bombast of gun owners and their lobbyists — failed to renew it. Since then, most gun measures have come out of state legislatures.
Though Massachusetts has relatively tough gun laws — and many assault weapons are banned here — it’s not an entirely rosy picture.
According to a CommonWealth Magazine review of state records, since 2008, the number of Class A licenses (which allow citizens to carry high capacity weapons) is up 27 percent statewide, and in Boston they are up 50 percent. CommonWealth quotes State Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) as saying gun manufacturers have figured out a way to “configure” these weapons so they “qualify in Massachusetts.” Linsky says manufacturers are selling “‘lite’ versions of assault weapons with such features as flash suppressors, bayonet mounts, and collapsible stocks removed.”
He’s right. Linger a few moments on the web site of Smith and Wesson and you’ll easily find the M&P15-22, a semi-automatic weapon that is “compliant” with tough state gun laws (states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland). The “recreational hunting” rifle can be yours for $499.
For decades, Washington has been intimidated by the National Rifle Association which waves the Second Amendment in the face of even the most reasonable advocates of restrictions on guns.
But the appetite for federal gun control is back.
Whether outraged by the murders in Newtown, or horrified more broadly by the carnage caused by guns every year (more than 30,000 deaths in 2009, according to the Violence Policy Center), citizens are again pressuring lawmakers to implement sweeping firearms controls.
President Obama, who last week unveiled a package of legislative proposals and executive actions, begins his second term pressing for reform. And Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a task force to study gun violence, told the National Conference of Mayors last week: “There are some who say the most powerful voice in this debate belongs to the gun lobby … I think they are wrong. We are going to take it to the American people.”
A recent CBS News-New York Times poll found that Americans are on board. Mandatory background checks for all potential gun buyers won approval from 92 percent of respondents; 63 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines; and 53 percent back a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
There is no predicting how this third rail issue will play out in Washington. Lawmakers from rural and western states are not eager to cast a recorded vote on guns unless public pressure becomes unyielding, but to most Americans it’s clear that it’s finally time to take the power of setting of gun policy away from the NRA.