I like guns. They’re loud, put me in touch with brash masculinity and make me feel like I’m living on the edge. Does this mean I should be able buy instruments of mass murder? The debate over the role of guns in our society is structured around two principle arguments. One holds that public safety is best served by limiting the number of people with access to lethal force. The other connects gun ownership to a tradition of American individualism, arguing that the right to own guns should be protected. These ideas are not mutually exclusive — anyone who believes it’s ok for private citizens to own hunting rifles but not machine guns has found a middle ground. Unfortunately, over the past few years, highly-vocal extremists have managed to confuse many Americans into thinking that responsible gun laws are attacks on the freedom to bear firearms.
There are many different kinds of guns. A sensible debate about guns must begin with that. I first learned to shoot with small rifles and shotguns that had to be reloaded after each shot. Jared Loughner, the Arizona man accused of killing six people and wounding United States Rep. Gabriel Giffords, used a totally different weapon. His gun, the Glock 19, is small — seven inches long and five inches tall — and can easily be concealed under clothing. Loaded, it weighs two pounds — not much more than a Nerf pistol. The Glock is a semiautomatic weapon, meaning that it shoots as fast as you can pull the trigger. Recent changes to federal firearms laws allow gun owners to purchase ammunition clips with huge capacities — Loughner’s Glock was loaded with 33 rounds. The FBI estimates that a novice shooter with such a weapon can fire three shots in less than one second — or 20 shots in about six seconds.
Four years ago, Seung-Hui Cho used a Glock 19 to kill 33 people and wound 25 others at Virgina Tech. It’s shocking that the same weapon was available for Loughner to buy. It’s a sign of a deeply flawed set of gun laws that after two of the grisliest spectacles of mass violence in the U.S., the weapon used to commit them is still available in stores. Glock sales actually increased in the days after the Giffords shooting.
Consider the implications of letting people purchase — at Wal-Mart — weapons capable of spraying dozens of bullets in a few seconds. Are we more or less safe when, for $460, almost anyone can legally buy a quick-firing, concealable weapon loaded with dozens of bullets?
The presence of semiautomatic pistols with extended ammunition clips on the streets does not make you, me or society as a whole any safer. In fact, it puts us in danger. The New York Police Department, the U.S. Border Patrol and thousands of other law enforcement agencies arm their officers with Glocks. When almost anyone can carry the same weapons as the police, the police are in danger of being outgunned every time they respond to a call.
Many believe that handguns are an important form of personal protection. For this reason, we must distinguish between different kinds of guns. In the hands of a responsible owner, a small revolver with six bullets is enough to stop almost any crime. In the hands of a criminal, this kind of weapon is far less dangerous than a Glock. Common-sense restrictions on weapons like the Glock won’t keep law-abiding citizens from defending themselves.
Some have suggested that an armed citizen can stop a lone gunman before he does serious harm. There was one such person at the Safeway where Loughner’s attack took place — this citizen nearly shot the man who had wrestled away Loughner’s gun.
Most incidents of mass murder in the U.S. involve handguns. Right now, handgun laws make it possible for almost anyone who hasn’t been convicted of a felony to buy easy-to-hide handguns that can quickly take dozens of lives. The question of whether Americans should be allowed to buy Glocks — or guns like them — is very different from the question of whether Americans should have guns. All guns are dangerous, but only some pose a threat to society. The shootings in Tuscan, Ariz. and at Virginia Tech prove that semiautomatic pistols like the Glock are too dangerous to be sold to private citizens. Responsible gun owners should recognize that danger and join with others to change weak laws that have cost hundreds of people their lives.
Seth Soderborg is an LS&A junior.