The rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a descendant of the military's M-16 rifle. The bullets it fires are not as large as those used in some other rifles, but the gun's high muzzle velocity makes it particularly powerful, and deadly. Mr. Lanza brought with him hundreds of bullets in 30-round magazines, which enabled him to shoot individual victims as many as 11 times. Authorities believe that, if the arrival of police on the scene had not prompted him to kill himself, Mr. Lanza would have continued his rampage. He certainly had the means to do it.
James Holmes used the same rifle, a Bushmaster AR-15, when he opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. He had a 100-round drum magazine, which jammed; otherwise, the toll there might have been even higher. Jacob Roberts used one when he shot and killed three people, including himself, at a Portland, Ore., mall last week. A decade ago, the Washington snipers used an AR-15 to kill unsuspecting innocents in parking lots and gas stations.
The AR-15 may be the most popular rifle in America. Enthusiasts say it looks cool — like the guns in the movies — and is fun to shoot. How much fun will it be now that we have been so painfully reminded that its one discernible purpose is to kill people?
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It was stunning, after the Aurora killings, that the nation's political leaders were still afraid to talk about gun control. During the second debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, perhaps the most awkward moment came when a woman asked the president what he had done to keep a 2008 campaign promise to "keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals." After talking about his experience praying with the mother of a young man who had been shot in the head in the Aurora theater, the most he could muster was he was interested in "seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced." Mr. Romney wouldn't even go that far, and veered into a conversation about the importance of two-parent families.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that in the wake of the mass shooting that injured former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Justice Department compiled a list of steps the nation could take to improve the background check system to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining guns. According to The Times, Justice officials recommended expanding the requirement for background checks to include private sales — closing the so-called gun show loophole — increasing penalties for straw buyers, and encouraging information sharing between federal agencies and the states on which individuals should be banned from buying guns because of criminal records, drug abuse and mental illness. But with the election looming, nothing happened.
Over the weekend, Democrats made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to push for stricter gun laws. California Sen. Diane Feinstein, the lead sponsor of the Clinton-era assault weapons ban, said she will introduce a bill to ban high-capacity magazines and military-style rifles like the AR-15. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the nation's leading gun control advocate, criticized the president for paying lip service to the need for gun control but not actually proposing anything specific. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said he thinks we may have reached a "tipping point" on the issue.
The most concrete sign of that comes from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat with an A rating from the National Rifle Association. On MSNBC on Monday, he brought a rare bit of common sense to the debate, noting that in all his years of hunting, he's "never had more than three shells in a clip."
"I don't know anyone in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle," he said. "I don't know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting."
The National Rifle Association has not responded to Friday's shooting, but it needs to realize this is an argument it is not going to win.