The Semiautomatic Weapon Binds Our American Tragedies

Guns used in the Aurora shootings

As the details rippled through the media, I kept searching for one fact: what weapon was used? This answer might give me more insight than understanding why he did it. The psychology of a mass killer, in a singular catastrophic event, is so nuanced and hard to forecast that it does little in understanding how such a tragedy can be prevented.

Fantasies of destruction are a part of being human. There are societal safeguards blocking the ability to act on those fantasies. Permissive gun laws in America—“the loosest in the developed world” The Atlantic wrote in July after the Aurora horror—are the biggest hole in those safeguards.

I am not anti-gun. I have fired handguns and rifles for kicks; I have gone hunting with men who abide a fierce code of their second amendment rights, which I respect. You can say that guns don’t kill people; people kill people, but that is a limited truth. Guns make people killing people a whole lot easier.

Let’s say you can justify the handgun for self-protection.

Let’s say you can justify the shotgun and the rifle—that darling of Americana—for hunting.

Let’s say you can justify the next class of weapon, the semiautomatic weapon, which has been used in the deadliest shootings on American soil, including Sandy Hook.

In all of the single-shooter non-political tragedies of the past five years, look at the weapons that were used:

2007 Virginia Tech

9mm semiautomatic Glock 19—purchased legally (same weapon used in the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt, which killed 6 and wounded 18 in 2011, and would’ve been banned under the Semiautomatic Assault Weapon ban)

.22 caliber Walther semi-automatic pistol—purchased legally

2012 Aurora

a semiautomatic variation of the M-16 rifle (100-round magazine), the AR-15, same as the one in Portland EARLIER THIS WEEK but it temporarily jammed, and another national crises was kind of averted.

12 gauge shotgun

one .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol

According to the NYT, these are among the most popular guns available in the multibillion-dollar American firearms market.

From 1994-2004, certain semiautomatic assault weapons were banned. From the ATF: “The law defined SAWs as 19 named firearms, as well as semiautomatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns that have certain named features.” Amidst the cosmetic features that were banned, the most significant element was the banning of LCMs(large capacity magazines) which hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. (A semiautomatic differs from an automatic in that each round in a semiautomatic requires a pull of the trigger.)

Still, did that ban prevent Columbine? One killer had a TEC-DC9 9mm semiautomatic handgun; the other killer had a 10-shot Hi-Point Carbine rifle; they both had sawed-off shotguns. All guns were gotten illegally. After Columbine, the Denver Post reported that the TEC-9 was made in 1994 by a gunmaker who had tripled production to beat the ban—“and called it his best year ever.”

The ban didn’t stop them but it might have slowed them down. Two people armed with such hate were going to do damage, but if they had 100-round semiautomatic guns, it’s conceivable that the damage would’ve been worse. Consider that semiautomatic weapons don’t allow shooters a chance to think, a chance to process the reality of their destruction. The moment of doubt comes too late. Nearly all of the killers ended their spree by suicide, except in Aurora.

NBC News reported that the weapons used in Sandy Hook were legally purchased and registered by the mother of the shooter. “Two 9mm handguns, one made by Glock and the other by Sig Sauer, were recovered inside the school. An AR-15-type rifle also was found at the scene, but there conflicting reports Friday night whether it had been used in the shooting.”

The AR-15 same as Aurora and Portland; was the brand of Glock the same as Virginia Tech? Remember, these are some of the most popular guns in the country. They are easy to get, easy to use, and easy to do devastating destruction.

These places, these towns that were unknown to popular culture are now known for that singular horror. Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, the island in Oslo, the Portland mall, Sandy Hook. The empathy and the hurt are worsened by the random possibility that it could happen in our town. And why not? What is stopping it? These places weren’t any different from ours.

If nothing can stop it, then what can prevent it? The easy answer—admittedly not necessarily the best in understanding the cultural or psychological forces at play in these not-so-isolated incidents—is gun control. Get semi-automatic weapons off the goddamned streets. Make guns built to rapidly kill a lot of people illegal, except in the hands of military. Reenact the semiautomatic assault weapon ban.


Here’s a report card on state gun laws:

From USA Today via Business Insider citing semiautomatic weapons used at Sandy Hook

CNN reports that Obama supports the assault weapons ban, which limits the number of rounds a semiautomatic weapon can hold.



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