We need gun laws that address the whole problem, not part

The US needs gun laws to address the whole problem, anything less is like profaning the memory of the dead.

Connecticut memorial
The state law addresses "the cosmetic features of semi-automatic rifles, but not their firepower" [Reuters]

When I write, I usually try to bedazzle my reader with clever writing, smart commentary and other rhetorical pyrotechnics. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the goal.

I’m not sure I have the heart this time. In light of the massacre of 26 people – 20 of them six- and seven-year-old children – writing anything more than plain-old English prose feels like profaning the memory of the dead.

So here are a couple of plain thoughts about the events of Friday, December 14, 2012, in which a disturbed young man armed with a semi-automatic rifle blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He killed six teachers, teacher’s aides and the school’s principal, as well as 12 little girls and eight little boys.

Teachers are heroes

In the past decade, there have been loud calls for “education reform”. This is a complex issue, but it more or less boils down to arguments for and against the privatisation of the US public education system.

The biggest obstacle facing proponents of privatisation is the unsettling idea of turning the education of American children into a profit-driven enterprise. Business people, and the politicians who answer to them, love the idea of incentivising teachers to produce good test results. But we know good test results are not the same as a good education. For illustration, see No Child Left Behind.

Teachers, moreover, are criminally underpaid, especially if they work in so-called “right-to-work” states whose laws undermine the collective-bargaining power of labour unions. My point is that, generally speaking, teachers don’t go into teaching for the money. They go into it because they believe teaching is a dignified and honourable profession. They are motivated not by material gain. They are motivated by faith in the righteousness of a cause. 

 President Obama reacts to the
Connecticut school shooting

That teaching is a dignified and honourable profession, that teachers are motivated by faith in a cause, that they deserve society’s gratitude and respect for the things they do for our children for so little in return – these have been targeted by proponents of privatisation. The reason for the poor state of our public school system is bad teachers, they say. The cure is making them compete in a marketplace according to the rules of enlightened self-interest.

The next time the US has one of these “school reform” debates, and the next time an otherwise concerned and reasonable person unwittingly parrots the line about bad teachers being the reason for the poor state of our public schools, I hope we remember what happened in Newtown.

Police say that Dawn Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, was the first to encounter the shooter, Adam Lanza (who killed himself after the rampage). Hearing the rat-tat-tat that shattered the school’s glass doors, Hochsprung ran to investigate and came face-to-face with the shooter. Lanza was 20 and tall. Hochsprung was 47 and short (5 feet, 2 inches). He was armed with a semi-automatic rifle. She was not armed at all. Yet she lunged at Lanza before he shot her to death.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine someone doing this if she is motivated by self-interest, no matter how enlightened. What Hochsprung did had nothing to do with the self. It reflects a deep faith in something bigger, something righteous, like the education of our children.

Democrats should do good, not just feel good

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore raised the need for gun control during the presidential election. Democrats have come to believe that this cost him the support of rural white men and the race. This is false. Republican George W Bush won the election because the US Supreme Court said he did.

Democrats tend to think of gun control as political kryptonite, but the re-election of President Barack Obama may be changing that view. Liberal pundits outraged by the Newtown massacre are now saying that Democrats have little to fear in moving forward on gun control. The political landscape has shifted, they say. Obama proved Democrats no longer need rural white men.

That’s great as far as it goes, but that’s the problem. With their newfound freedom, will Democrats take legislation as far as it needs to go or will they settle for measures that make them feel good but don’t do much good?

So far, the focus is on US Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed assault weapon ban. It picks up where the old ban left off but her proposal includes something new: A ban on high-capacity magazines of 10 rounds or more. Feinstein plans to introduce the bill when the new Congress convenes in 2013. On Tuesday, Obama said he supports it.

The Feinstein proposal faces plenty of hurdles but if it fails to address high-capacity magazines, there won’t be much point to it. As the Hartford Courant reported on Tuesday, Connecticut has a state law banning assault rifles modelled on the federal law that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. But that did little for the innocents at Sandy Hook.

The state law addresses the cosmetic features of semi-automatic rifles, but not their firepower. To violate the ban, Lanza’s gun had to have included “a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a grenade launcher or a flash suppressor, a device typically screwed on to the end of the muzzle to limit the bright flash caused by gunpowder that ignites outside of the muzzle”, the Courant reported.

Lanza’s rifle didn’t have any of these. The manufacturer, Bushmaster, markets its semi-automatic rifles as something straight out of Generation Kill but with the promise that they are completely “state compliant”. Indeed, flouting the spirit of the law brings a brisk trade. Walmart has sold Bushmaster models in stores nationwide and online.

 Survivors of mass shooting mourn victims

The Feinstein bill would be toothless without provisions banning high-capacity magazines for another reason. Most gun-related deaths don’t involve semi-automatic rifles. They do, however, involve semi-automatic handguns. Mother Jones compiled data on mass shootings since 1982 and found that 68 percent of cases involved such guns. The Glock used by Jared Lee Loughner in the killing of six people and wounding of 13 others, including former US Rep Gabrielle Giffords, had a clip that held 33 rounds.

And Feinstein’s proposed assault weapons ban attempts to outlaw something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as an “assault weapon”, Robert Crook, head of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, told the Courant. They are a “media invention”, he said. “These are semi-automatic firearms that have military cosmetic characteristics. They look like our military firearms, but they’re not.”

Even if the Feinstein bill becomes law, including provisions that outlaw high-capacity magazines, it wouldn’t solve problems of access. Marc Cooper, a professor at the University of Southern California and self-professed liberal handgun owner, said on his Facebook page that real gun control laws would be about background checks for all sales, licensing through safety training, mental illness checks and the weakening of concealed carry laws.

“This is a heads-up to ignorant liberals that an assault weapons ban is a ruse to make you feel like you did something when, in fact, you have done just about nothing,” Cooper wrote. “Making the assault weapons ban your fighting banner is to make the NRA very very happy.”

Listen to the teachers

Dawn Hochsprung believed in something so much bigger than herself that she didn’t hesitate to jump in front of a bullet to protect the children in her charge. That’s what you expect from a teacher. The rewards aren’t material. They are grounded in faith.

Democrats should listen to the teachers. They don’t have as much to fear these days given the changes in the political landscape, but they can’t squander this political moment on legislation that a) outlaws something that doesn’t exist, b) doesn’t do anything about high-capacity magazines and c) doesn’t do anything about the serious problem of access.

To be a politician is to live according to the rules of self-interest. No one expects otherwise. But now is the time for them to serve something larger than themselves, the heroes who died believing the education of American schoolchildren was among the greatest of rewards. We need gun laws that address the whole problem, not part. Anything less is like profaning the memory of the dead.

John Stoehr’s writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.