A gun owner himself, the Texas singer/songwriter/rocker ponders assault weapons, crime bills, the Sandy Hook tragedy, mental illness, and the contradictions therein.
BY JAMES MCMURTRY
I used to think I had a clear opinion on gun control. I didn’t much care for the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the bill we now refer to as the “Clinton Crime Bill”, which included a ban on “assault weapons,” or was it “assault type weapons,” each a silly term in my view, one that seemed to be defined more by the cosmetics of the offending weapon rather than by the function. A semiauto variant of an AR-15, with its tall battle sights and grim black plastic stock, looks scarier than a Browning BAR hunting rifle, sleek, and stocked in fine hand checkered walnut. But they both function the same way: with each squeeze of the trigger one round is fired, one empty casing is ejected and one fresh round is chambered. The old argument that the AR is of no use to a hunter is now moot due to the advent of accurized versions with match grade barrels and good scopes. The coyote hunters and the feral hog hunters seem to love those things. So the criteria for rifles that can be termed “assault weapons” grows ever more murky. To me, an assault weapon is a weapon that happens to get used in an assault.
On August 1, 1966 Charles Joseph Whitman killed fourteen people and wounded thirty-two others in and around the Tower of the University of Texas during a ninety-six minute sniping rampage. Whitman did most of his shooting with a scoped bolt action 6mm Remington, a rifle that looks and functions pretty much exactly like my deer rifle. Whitman also had an M-1 Carbine (not to be confused with the M-1 Garand, which chambers a much more powerful round), a fast-handling and reliable semiauto rifle that had been popular with soldiers in World War Two. Most accounts of the Tower shooting that I’ve read suggest that Whitman didn’t get much use out of the M-1, probably because the .30 Carbine round, for which it was chambered, did not have nearly the effective range of the 6mm Remington. The aforementioned AR-15, now considered an assault rifle, had been available for civilian purchase since 1963, but if Whitman knew this, he apparently didn’t feel the need to purchase one.
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb, made mostly from fertilizer, in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed one hundred and sixty-eight people, nineteen of whom were children in the second floor day care center. Four hundred and fifty more people were wounded in the blast. McVeigh didn’t even use a gun.
I don’t know why the news of the Newtown shooting shook me up more than most similar events in my memory. Perhaps it was just one too many for me. It took a while to sink in. My local gunsmith told me the news as he was inspecting a revolver I had brought to him for repair. My first thought was “Here we go again.” I didn’t think about the children, or the parents, or anything to do with the actual tragedy. I only thought about the culture war that was about to heat back up. I didn’t worry that the government would come take away my guns, because that won’t happen. But I knew the NRA would fan the flames of such hysteria until the gun shops were swamped and the ammo shelves empty – which is what is happening.
I tried not to watch TV that day; I didn’t want to see that show again, the police tape, grief-stricken people hoping to see their children, their hopes fading with the light of day…. too much. I didn’t want to hear the same old arguments, more guns, less guns, as if any course of action could really make us safe.
I couldn’t quite avoid the TV; it was on in every bar. And I did see something different this time, something cold and practical that might make a tiny difference, might….
I could barely hear the sound, but I watched a brief interview with law enforcement personnel who were explaining the changes in police tactics that had been implemented in the last decade or so. In the old days, first response police officers, when faced with a school shooting in progress, were told to wait for the SWAT team. Apparently, enough people died while the first responders waited for SWAT, as per their orders, that the orders were eventually changed. Now, the first responders are told to go right in, walk past the wounded and kill the shooter if he won’t be arrested. The sooner the shooting stops, the lower the body count. Sound philosophy I think, but a tall order for a cop who might not be as well armed as his or her adversary. And here, I find a crack in my old opinion on gun control.
Another aspect of the Clinton Crime Bill that I used to think was silly was its restriction of a firearm’s magazine capacity to ten rounds. I didn’t see what good such a restriction would do. If we assume, however dubiously, that the shooter abides by the law and only carries legal magazines of the proper capacity, what’s to stop him from carrying a satchel full of extra mags with which he can shoot all day? Nothing’s to stop him, of course, but he will have to re-load more often, and here is where that silly old gun bill might finally have a practical application due to the evolution of police tactics. I was reading a gun magazine in a supermarket the other day. There was an ad for a company that makes extended high capacity rifle magazines. The ad said, “If you’re reloading, you’re not in the fight.” If a school shooter is not extremely well trained and has to change magazines under duress, he’s out of the fight for a second or two, and the highway patrolman, or the deputy sheriff, or the city constable who just happened to be there will have a second or two to fire at the shooter without risking return fire. If I were any kind of a cop in that situation, I would sure appreciate those seconds. The tragedy would still have happened, but the body count might be lower.
Might…. might be the best we can do.
Of course, the Clinton bill did not get rid of extended magazines. It left a loophole whereby the mag would be legal if it were manufactured before the ban went into effect. Gun companies rushed production on high cap mags and used them to sell piles of guns. Ads that stated, “Comes with two pre-ban magazines!” were common and effective. I don’t mean to suggest that these manufacturers were evil for doing this. The nineties weren’t good to gunmakers. Bankruptcy and reorganization were rife in the industry then. One of the economic problems with the gun business is that for the product to be safe to the user, it has to be too well built to ever have to be replaced. If one is to sell more of such a product, one must find a way to make customers want more. One of the best tactics when faced with such a situation is to scare the customers into thinking they’ll never be able to get any more unless they buy now – the tactic that seems to be the sole raison d’être for the modern NRA. It works. A shop I frequent had its best sales day of its history two days after Newtown, thirty-eight thousand dollars in sales, mostly in rifles of the sort now commonly referred to as assault rifles.
One might justifiably ask if any restrictions on new weapons could possibly do any good when there is so much hardware already out there. Sometimes the attempt just seems futile and pointless, one more bill to make politicians look like they’re doing something. But what is a society to do?
Now it’s gonna get real dicey.
If we are to call ourselves a society, we will have to behave as a society. We will have to pass laws and make deals, and none of us are likely to be satisfied at the end of the day. This is a symptom of a condition known as Democracy.
Some of my shooting buddies will howl at me for even considering the notion of gun restrictions and I don’t blame them. The vast majority of gun owners, even those with a penchant for high capacity semi-autos, even those with full auto permits, the vast majority never do anyone any harm. And I’ve always hated the “need” argument so often brought up by some who have never fired a gun. It’s true, no one needs an Uzi; but nor does anyone need a Porsche, and no one will ever deny a person the right to own a Porsche, even though Porsches are designed to run at speeds far exceeding most US speed limits, and if driven at such speeds on public roads may endanger innocent citizenry.
It’s not an exact analogy, but perhaps worth noting. People I’ve known who have owned Uzis and various full auto weapons just used them to shoot up farm trash dumps and junk cars, an expensive but thoroughly fun past time which wouldn’t be the same if one had to change mags every ten rounds. I can’t blame a shooter who has always acted responsibly for being annoyed at gun restrictions, even if said restrictions could actually be proven to be good for society as a whole. Often it seems that the one bad kid on the playground spoils the game for the rest of us and our hard ball gets taken away, but that’s life, and we have to start somewhere. We have to try something, or at least talk about trying something without immediately descending into factionalized shouting matches, each person shouting the slogan from his favorite bumper sticker to which he has chained his identity.
I don’t want to take away anyone’s Uzi. I don’t want to restrict anyone’s right to dig up a hillside with an AK-47, but I want that constable or deputy to have an extra second to make the shooting stop; that way, someone gets to see their child, someone who wouldn’t without that extra second. I don’t know of a fair way to make that happen. And no, I don’t know if the unfair way would work either, but it seems like it might, at least in a case or two. Might…. once again. One must try.
Of course, it would be better if the shooting in the schoolhouse never started, a much taller order. We must remember that guns are just a part of the mix that far too often results in horrific tragedy. Guns are merely enabling tools for some killers. The desire to kill does not start with the gun. Timothy McVeigh killed more people with a truckload of fertilizer than any single American shooter has killed with a gun. The thread that runs through Tim McVeigh, Adam Lanza and Charles Whitman is not just mental instability, but rage, pure unfathomable rage. And we are an angry people these days. I don’t know why. I suspect that our world is changing faster than we are capable of changing. Some of us feel left out; some of us feel outnumbered; so we’re fearful and angry. Our societal anger needs to be acknowledged and addressed, perhaps diagnosed and treated, as do our individual angers. Our whole approach to mental health needs to be re-thought, and not re-thought in accordance with Wayne La Pierre’s moronic mental health data base insanity. We take our kids to the doctor for physical checkups on a regular basis, but rarely do any of us see a psychiatrist before contemplating suicide. We’re still scared of the stigma, the red brand of craziness, for which our relatives once would have simply locked us away and pretended we had never existed rather than attempt to grapple with the psychological complexities of the human mind and the chemical complexities of the human brain.
We need to look at mental health as simply a part of health, toss away the stigmas and treat it, monitor it, and fund the treatment, a tall order indeed.
James McMurtry is a Texas-based songwriter and musician who regularly contributes to BLURT, where you can read his politically- and socially-charged “Wasteland Bait & Tackle” blog. Recent topics have included life in Central America, green/clean energy, the iPhone and the Occupy movement.