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December 29, 2012

Dodging fire in no-man's-land on gun control

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — For any human being, an event as shocking and poignant as the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is bound to evoke a range of reactions, from the visceral to the contemplative.

As a journalist working on deadline, I had no choice but to immediately go about deciding how to treat such an event in the Weekend edition of our newspaper, lump in my throat notwithstanding. Almost as bad was repeating the process days later, on Christmas, when four firefighters were shot the day before in an ambush — two fatally — in Webster, N.Y.

Which headline would you write, or photo would you choose, to lead our front page? Of all the Sandy Hook photographs available, none seemed appropriate. Each involved something unspeakably awful, from which any decent person averts one’s eyes. One can only imagine how the photographers working that day felt.

But to me, almost equally as disturbing as those shootings are the empty, emotionally charged debates that we’ve had in their aftermath.

I’ve never had a problem with anyone who owns firearms for hunting and self-defense. And as one of three brothers in a family of outdoorsmen, I see valid arguments for both handguns and semi-automatic rifles. Fishing guides, trappers, loggers and others who work in the forest run the risk of encountering a hungry animal, but such folks might prefer a revolver to lugging a long gun around all day. And since many a bear has survived the first shot from a high-powered rifle, semi-automatic weapons can be a matter of safety and not merely preference.

But of all the weapons my family uses for hunting, none would suffice for the sort of mass uninterrupted slaughter perpetrated by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, whose Bushmaster XM-15 was built specifically for killing humans, not wild game. Any “outdoorsman” who requires a 30-round magazine is clearly neither a marksman nor a serious person.

Such firepower is neither necessary for self-defense nor constitutional. The Second Amendment clearly states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

In an era of hostile native tribes along the frontier and potential slave revolts far from the immediate reach of our halcyon national army, this made sense. But our founding fathers were also thinking in terms of flintlock muskets that took 90 seconds to reload.

The Bill of Rights does not afford individuals the right to a Browning .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and a $2,000 assault rifle that can be converted to fully automatic fire with a $50 kit is in no meaningful way different.

The argument that AR-15s and high-capacity handguns are needed as a “defense against tyranny” is also untenable unless followed to its horrifyingly dystopian conclusion. If the Second Amendment is truly about fending off tyranny — based on a creative interpretation of the Bill of Rights — then logically, heavy machine guns, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons must be legal. Beating back 21st century federalist forces would necessitate nothing less. And handguns, with their limited combat capacity, would be the least of any patriot’s concerns.

Sadly, the United States has a much higher rate of violent crime — and I’m talking way higher, look it up — than nations such as Canada, the U.K., Australia, Japan, France and Germany, which also have much stricter laws on gun ownership. And none of which, for the record, are tyrannical despotisms preying on unarmed populaces.

These nations also have plenty of violent video games, gory movies and mentally ill people. The only variable here is the obstinacy of groups such as the National Rifle Association — which has long defended outdoorsmen’s rights with one hand while fighting tenaciously against efforts to restrict black-market gun traffic with the other.

When NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre offered his post-Sandy Hook rant, I couldn’t help but think of Upton Sinclair, who said: “It can be awfully hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

It’s sad, because a lot of gun violence could be prevented without restricting anyone’s right to firearms adequate for recreation and self-defense. But the NRA brass – along with some of its most vitriolic, doctrinaire members — are taken aback at the audacity of questioning anyone’s right to any type of weapon. Just ask outdoors writer Jim Zumbo, whose column and endorsements were dropped amid outrage after a 2007 blog post suggesting assault rifles “have no place in hunting.” Only after taking a vow of ideological purity at the ranch of draft-dodging admitted pedophile Ted Nugent was Zumbo able to resume his career.

Firearms enthusiasts would be well-advised to abandon such hardline stances and seek some reasonable middle ground on gun control. In a civilized society, laws are made by those who have the winning argument, not those with the most firepower.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.