Immediate Changes Needed to Save Lives

Those who have handled a semiautomatic rifle of the sort used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings on Feb. 14 know that these are not ordinary weapons. Their power is unmistakable; an errant shot striking a small tree will go through that tree and the one behind that, and so on. A shot striking a human body will result in a cascading wave of force, crushing tissue and making recovery difficult for anyone who manages to survive the instant, massive bleeding or organ damage.

Outside of law enforcement and military use, these guns have no purpose during peacetime, other than to satisfy the puerile thrill of owning and shooting them and, often, posting pictures of oneself displaying them on social media. Target shooting can be accomplished with far less potentially lethal weaponry and there are better options for hunting and for self-defense, if that is ever really a necessity. 

Gun lobby activists and the politicians they support have tried to shift the discussion following the mass shootings to questions about mental health and, in the case of schools, arming teachers, coaches, administrators, and support staff. This is a deliberate smokescreen put up to obscure the real issue: There are too many guns in the United States, and those capable of killing dozens of people in a matter of minutes are scarcely regulated, if at all. A similar smokescreen has been raised about changing the age at which someone can buy a gun. Arguing that because Americans can be sent to war at 18 they should be able to handle an automatic weapon at home is a false equivalent.

In the military, training comes first, then 18-year-olds are armed for the precise reason that they may someday be asked to kill other human beings — under supervision and on the field of battle. To use military service as justification for allowing the same powerful guns among an untrained civilian population is wrong. Then, too, arguing about whether people under 21 should be allowed to possess assault rifles without even the same regulation imposed on pistol owners in most states misses the point that high-powered weapons must, at a minimum, be strongly regulated. 

Like the debate about whether teachers and school personnel should be armed, the question of what is an appropriate age to be able to buy a gun obscures the real problem — that there are too many guns in this country and they are too easy to obtain.

The sale and possession of semiautomatic rifles should immediately be regulated at least as tightly as pistol ownership in the most restrictive states, such as New York, if not banned altogether. Lives are at risk. The longer America delays meaningful and effective gun control, the more killing there will be. No arming of teachers or age limit on who may buy dangerous firearms will change that.