A red herring in the gun control debate

I lived in Alaska for 18 years beginning in 1967. I taught school in a variety of settings, flew airplanes, was in business, and babbled for a while in a column on these pages. There were ups, and downs. Since leaving, I’ve lived for a long time in several countries where guns are vigorously controlled (Australia, France, Ireland, China, and The United Kingdom). I have come to think the following is obviously true.

I have been a gun owner and hunter for over 50 of my 71 years. Hunting moose and caribou for the table, many of my days have been spent in areas of Alaska well populated by brown bear. Doing so, I have never felt I needed more than the five cartridges held in the magazine of my hunting rifle. Only once did I see another hunter bring a military style, assault rifle, to the field, only to be greeted with knowing smiles from more experienced riflemen. We wondered why the hunter didn’t spend time improving his marksmanship, instead of packing all those heavy extra bullets around in an area where one shot should be enough to kill the prey we were after.

There is a red herring being championed by the NRA and other gun fanatics, unscrupulous legislators, gun manufacturers and those in debt to them, and uninformed, inexperienced members of the press. It is the idea that it is too difficult, even impossible, to define the line separating weapons a private citizen has a legitimate need for, and right to have, from those for which there is no Constitutional, hunting, or self-protection justification for owning. That is nonsense.

We need to make a clear distinction between the firepower of law enforcement, and that of the general populace. That distinction protects the law abiding, and threatens those who are not. It will take many years to do the job completely. We have polluted our environment with millions of guns that should not be in private hands. Collecting them will take effort, education, and, from time to time, force. It should be a federal felony for a private citizen to possess any weapon capable of semiautomatic or fully automatic fire after a period of “No questions asked” opportunity to turn them in for disposal.

The Second Amendment was written at a time when the most powerful weapon a person could carry was a muzzle loading, smooth bore, flintlock long gun. Only an expert could fire it as many as four times a minute, and not for very long. Modern semiautomatic and fully automatic weapons are able to fire four to nine times a second. They may be fitted with magazines carrying one hundred or more cartridges available for purchase over the internet. No questions are asked beyond, “Credit card number?” That is a situation the civilized world legitimately calls “insane.”

We have already barred the private possession of fully automatic weapons except under strict registration requirements. They are almost never used in the commission of a crime. Regarding semiautomatic firearms, we have seen schools shot up, people cut down on the streets of our cities and university campuses, gun fights with our police forces that kill and injure public servants, and a broadening opinion among the populace that such weapons should be in their closet or desk drawer as the result of our toleration of their profusion. Many states now permit people to have such weapons hidden on their person. It is time to take a simply defined and politically demanding action to reduce substantially such scenarios, and partially redeem our standing among the civilized countries of the world.

We should immediately outlaw the private possession of any weapon capable of semiautomatic or automatic fire, and magazines for any firearm capable of holding more than six cartridges. Again, barring such weapons is entirely consistent with the citizens right under the Constitution to bear arms. Under such a law, a citizen could still lawfully possess revolvers, single shot weapons, pump action shotguns, and/or bolt, pump, or lever action rifles, even a muzzle loading, smooth bore, flintlock long gun. We would be prevented from being able to cut down trees, or huddled masses in a mall, with a burst from our “hunting rifle.”

We should be.

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