The Smith & Wesson M&P 15 and the Bushmaster XM-15 are, undeniably, good examples of clever engineering. What is clever about these rifles is that they are semi-automatic — when a bullet fires, the power from the explosion is used
to load a fresh cartridge into the chamber, and the weapon is ready to shoot again. This mechanism allows for rapid fire, making these two devices attractive choices not only for law enforcement organizations around the world, but also for civilians to use in shooting sports, hunting and personal protection.
That sounds like an advertisement, but reality is less black and white. On July 20, James Eagan Holmes carried a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 when he killed 12 and injured 59 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. On Dec. 14, Adam Peter Lanza took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., using mainly a Bushmaster XM-15. Both rifles were legally bought in the United States.
Civilian ownership of so-called military-style weapons is a major topic in the controversy surrounding gun control that re-emerged after the tragedy in Newtown.
The Newtown tragedy finally prompted President Obama to urge for practical actions aiming to reduce gun violence in the United States. Although specific points will not be available until late January, proposed measures will likely include a ban on military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, as well as the closing of loopholes that allow people to buy guns without a proper background check. On the other side, the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun-rights lobbying group, is calling for a more armed society, suggesting that schools should be protected by armed police. Some politicians even propose that teachers should carry concealed guns.
One can not help but doubt how successful a teacher would be trying to defend their class from a determined shooter with a semi-automatic rifle or be wary of teachers using these weapons improperly. Besides, armed guards did not prevent the mass shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
Banning legal access to military-style weapons is a critical, necessary first step towards less gun violence in the United States. To begin with, it is obvious that the events in Newtown and Aurora would have had different outcomes if buying semi-automatic weapons was legally impossible.
The debate about this subject is intense mainly because gun rights advocates tend to exaggerate the protections offered by the Second Amendment. President Obama will definitely not suggest a complete ban on personal guns. “Like the majority of Americans,” he wrote in an op-ed after the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., last year, “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. And the courts have settled that as the law of the land.” Regarding background checks, he said responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that “an unbalanced man shouldn’t be able to buy a gun so easily; that there’s room for us to have reasonable laws that uphold liberty, ensure citizen safety and are fully compatible with a robust Second Amendment.”
The Second Amendment could not predict how semi-automatic weapons would be used by civilians for mass shootings. But, evidently, preventing civilians from owning semi-automatic guns does not infringe on the Constitution.
For those who still believe in the right of owning military-style weapons and magazines, the questions that remain are: What do you need them for? Are they really necessary for hunting, target-shooting at the gun range or even self-protection?
Marcelo Cicconet is a contributing columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.