12:15 PM EST, December 18, 2012
If the reactions of the past three days hold up, we're likely to see some kind of ban on assault weapons or on the ammo magazines of the sort used by the Newtown shooter.
That's good news for people who have been pushing for this since forever, many of them in deep-blue Connecticut. But contrary to the tone of the rising chorus since the tragedy, it's a messy picture that may or may not address the problem, and it raises questions well beyond the equally simplistic 2nd Amendment argument on the other side.
Will the reactions carry the day? Calls for a ban rose up even before state police Lt. J. Paul Vance grimly handed out lists of the victims on Saturday, and the people pushing for it correctly describe a long fight.
"This may not happen in our lifetime," said Hank Brown, one of 63 people at a vigil Saturday in West Hartford, next to the rose garden at Elizabeth Park. "We're just individuals standing here with candles, but this is how movements occur."
"It's just a question of not giving up. It's going to be a long, hard fight," said Lucy Ferriss, moments later at the same vigil, which was organized by MoveOn.org as an anti-gun violence event, one of hundreds at that moment around the nation.
They're right, and they're speaking from the heart. I'm also in the camp that says there's no good reason for civilians to own these things, and I'm also angry. Still, putting it in perspective seems helpful.
— An assault weapons ban is not a big part of the answer to stopping gun violence overall.
— It's not easy to legislate, contrary to the calls for a "simple" ban.
— A narrowly focused ban would work only as part of a holistic change in the nation's approach to violence, community policing, and treatment of mental illness. That's one of several reasons why President Obama has only hinted at a ban by calling for decisive action, rather than by calling for it outright.
— We are raw with emotion today and will be for days if not weeks after the last child is buried. Yes, it is time to talk about a ban on assault weapons even as families grieve. But no, it's not time to raise and enact it in Congress and at the Capitol in Hartford. We think and speak through emotion. We legislate by deliberation, for a reason.
— A ban could affect hundreds of jobs in Connecticut at Colt Defense and Colt's Manufacturing Co. in West Hartford, and at Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Fairfield, where they make and sell these things. That's no reason to shy away from a ban, but workers whose legitimate, legal livelihoods are wiped out would need to be compensated if they were suddenly ousted.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra seems to have the big picture in perspective after a lifetime as the son of a father he never knew, cut down by a bullet in the South Bronx when the future mayor was a baby. On Sunday morning, Segarra appeared on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, briefly retelling that familiar story.
Segarra talked about the capital city's annual gun buyback event, and he called for "a ban on assault weapons."
"What we're asking for is some balance. We recognize our constitutional right to bear arms," Segarra said.
At noon Sunday, Segarra spoke at a vigil at the state Capitol, where neither he nor anyone else publicly called for a weapons ban.
The timing of this is indeed painful. Even at the MoveOn vigil, when someone said Obama needs help fighting the NRA, another participant yelled out, "Let's not make this political!"
After the Sunday vigil, Segarra said: "We will have those debates and I will get more involved in this issue. ... For now, those of us who are in leadership positions, we have to spend some time providing solace."
Segarra turned to Hartford Police Sgt. Sean Spell, who is on the city's task force on shooting violence. On his smart phone, Spell showed me a picture of a .223-caliber assault rifle recovered a year ago, which he said had been used in the killing of Angel Gomez on July 1, 2011.
"We don't come across those weapons often but they're out there," Spell said. He added, ominously, "When a rifle like this is used, it's massive."
Knowing the problem is one thing, defining it bylawis another.
Assault rifles, also known as modern sporting rifles in an industry that wants to soften the language, are a general term for semi-automatic weapons that reload a round of ammunition virtually instantly after they're fired. They are often sold as variations of the AR-15, which is a type, not a brand, and they are basically the civilian version of the M-16 and M-4 rifles sold to military and law enforcement customers.
The national ban in effect from 1994 until 2004, when a sunset provision retired it, prohibited new manufacture and sale of semi-automatic firearms, and the ban applied to weapons with at least two of a list of characteristics. It even named some models made by Colt and other gun-makers. But by changing a few things, the makers were able to largely get around the law.
In Connecticut, for example, the assault weapons ban is still in effect but the military-style rifle used by the Newtown shooter was full legal because of those definitions.
Sporting rifles are highly popular, all the more since the ban ended — and their main legitimate purpose appears to be target shooting, not hunting.
In 2010 the National Sports Shooting Foundation released a survey conducted by Harris Interactive showing there were 18.4 million active handgun target shooters and 14.8 million active rifle target shooters. The foundation happens to be located in Newtown and said on its website it would have no comment on the shootings out of respect for the victims, some of whom were known to staff members.
And that's the point. Everyone has a stake in stopping this madness. Common sense says we need tighter gun laws. But answers do not come easy.
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