Sunday, July 22, 2012

The National Sin of Legal Assault Weapons

Senseless (adjective) 
1. Happening or done for no purpose   
 --American Heritage Dictionary

A Google news search in the days after the mass movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado last week, that left 12 people dead and 58 injured, turned up one word more than any other, in comments by people trying to talk about the event: “senseless”.  Especially in the somber remarks by public leaders, “senseless” was the common descriptor.  President Obama: “Such violence, such evil is senseless.”  Governor Mitt Romney: “Ann and I are deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence that took the lives of 15(sic) people in Colorado and injured dozens more.” House Speaker John Boehner: “Words cannot capture the horror, or make sense of something so senseless.”

That “senseless” is perpetually used in our human attempts to fathom such tragedies like the Aurora event makes “sense” in a way.  When we are confronted by random and cold blooded acts of violence; when it happens in as mundane a place as a mall Cineplex; when all of the folks who died or were hurt were truly innocent, there is a feeling of powerlessness that can take hold.  Things are just senseless, cannot be explained or fit into any world view. It makes us wonder, “Is there anything I can do?”

America as a community has done some things in response. Since Friday night last, millions of prayers have been offered, public and private, and that’s good.  Memorial services and funerals have begun and that’s right.  American flags fly at half-staff in an effort to make this event a communal event.  The media, for better and worse is doing a lot, burying us under all the facts of the story, the tender biographies of those who died, the tales of heroism, the investigation of this man who pulled the trigger.  Still it all feels senseless. 

And yet: what if beyond all of the individual and civic acts of compassion and mourning, we as a nation decided to do more than grieve and anxiously question?  What if our leaders moved beyond words of comfort to words of action? What if they said we as a country must do something right now about gun violence in America?  We must better control and license and oversee and regulate the ownership of guns in the United State.  We must respond and try, at least try, to make sure something like Aurora won’t happen again.

Aurora and the other all too similar mass shootings are not isolated events, rare, or unprecedented.  In fact these seem all too common here in America.  Just weeks ago a gunmen opened up in gunfire in a bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Remember the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona?  College shootings at Virginia Tech? School shootings in Paducah, Mississippi, and Columbine, Colorado?  It keeps happening and yet we seem as a nation unwilling or unable to take even small steps towards getting the guns out of the hands of those who would kill. Maybe that’s senseless too.

Take the shooter’s weapon of choice in Aurora: the AR-15 assault rifle. Why is such a murderous gun legal to purchase, own and operate in the United States?  From 1994 to 2004 it was actually outlawed under federal law but that statute was allowed to lapse. The AR-15 isn’t a hunting rifle. It isn’t the kind of weapon a homeowner would want to use to protect himself.  The gun was originally manufactured to be used by soldiers in wartime.
Why would anyone want to own one?  Need to possess such a killing machine? Why was it so easy for the Aurora shooter to walk into a local gun shop and buy one? Why was it so simple for him to order 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet?  Why aren’t these realities seen as “senseless” too, as also making absolutely no sense?

It’s almost as if we as Americans have gotten too used to random, awful, terrible happenings like the mass killings in Colorado.  The sad truth is that in another month or so, in another “normal” place like a quiet suburb or a college campus or a movie theater, someone else will again go crazy and cradle an assault rifle and then pull the trigger and it will happen all over again.  Or, maybe not.

Maybe our politicians might finally grow backbones and challenge the arrogant power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which spent $3 million dollars in 2011 to lobby Washington for gun owner rights and so-called “Second Amendment freedoms”.  Do not doubt that if the NRA got behind a renewed assault weapons ban it would happen immediately.  Problem is they never met a gun control law they didn’t fight against with all the influence they could muster.  Maybe Obama and Romney might revisit their stances against assault weapons each took in the past: Obama as a candidate, and Romney as Massachusetts Governor.  I pray that’s not too much to ask in an election year.  

But this I do know.  Mass deaths by assault rifles will forever be senseless unless these national cataclysms move us to change the rules, to tighten up gun laws, and to have sane and sensible gun control legislation which both respects gun ownership rights while protecting the public from these weapons.  In the end an assault rifle is designed to do just one thing: to kill and to do so at 90 rounds per minute, or even more, or even faster.  That is truly senseless.

So absolutely: may we as a people of faith and fellow citizens, pray for all those killed, injured and traumatized in Aurora.  But then let’s act too, do something, anything, to attempt to ensure that it will not happen again. Now that makes sense.


  1. John-

    While I wholeheartedly agree that lax gun laws are a problem in this nation, even with an assault rifle ban, James Holmes could have obtained guns and perpetrated this shooting, albeit with different weaponry.

    We need to pursue tighter gun regulations, but we also need to look beyond immediate answers. I think the problem is deeper, especially in light of our recent history.


    1. Quentin--thank you for your comments. I do agree that someone like Holmes, if motivated and of the mind to kill, could and would have found the firepower necessary to carry out his crime. I still think we need to do something in response to Aurora beyond national hand wringing and the empty cliches and platitudes of our "leaders". That was the motivation behind the column and plea. Other deeper issues call for thoughtful examination too.
      Peace, John Hudson

  2. The AR-15 is not an assault rifle. Assault rifles by definition must be selective fire - semi-automatic or full automatic. The AR-15 is semi-automatic only - just like all magazine fed pistols and other types of magazine fed rifles. Similar damage could have been done by this shooter with a Glock 40 and a few extra magazines in his pocket. An AR-15 can be modified to allow full automatic fire by grinding down the sear, but one who does that has committed a federal offense. The M-16 is a much more effective weapon on semi-automatic. On full automatic, the rounds in the magazine are gone in about 4 seconds and the muzzle rises, no matter how hard you try to keep it from doing so.

    Bloggers in responsible positions have an obligation to get their facts straight. Google can help.


    John Sharland, Member, Central Square Congregational Church, UCC Bridgewater; past Moderator of the Pilgrim Association of the Mass. Conference UCC; current member of the Board of Stewardship of Central Square Congregational, UCC; current member of the Mass. Conference Annual Meeting Planning Committee and an old Marine, having served as a rifleman during the Vietnam War era. Peace!

  3. John,
    It looks like I am guilty as charged as to missing the nuanced definition of an AR-15 as an assault weapon, though in all my research I've yet to be able to determine if Holmes might have altered the elements of the original gun to make it an assault weapon. It is interesting to note that the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners Association had this note on their blog site: "Does the City of Denver have an Assault Weapons Ban (AWB)? YES. Section 38-130 of Denver’s Revised Municipal Code was amended in 2007 and is titled “Assault Weapons” Denver's Assault Weapon ordinance (as well as other firearms ordinances) can be viewed here. That ban, however, only applies to firearms with magazines that hold more than 20 rounds.

    NOTE: This means it is legal to own an AR-15, FNFAL, HK91, MAK90, etc, as long as you do not insert a 21+ round magazine."

    Since Holmes gun had a magazine with 90+ rounds it seems this would make his Ar-15 illegal and an assault weapon in Denver.

    Regardless I appreciate your explanation and taking the time to write. So to explain I guess I'd like to see a ban on all weapons like the Ar-15, whether or not they are considered assault or not. So if a rifle like the ASR-15 was built or is based on a design for war, it does not belong in civilian hands. That's my belief.

    Peace, Pastor John Hudson