Gunning for reasonable restrictions

Guns must be taken away from people who suffer from mental issues, as well as from suspected and convicted criminals.

PROTESTERS HOLD signs during a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, March 2018 (photo credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)
PROTESTERS HOLD signs during a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, March 2018
(photo credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)
Following the Parkland, Florida, shooting, gun advocates have raised a number of arguments that surface again and again after massacres in the United States: Israel is full of guns, yet massacres are unheard of; gun restrictions will only disarm law-abiding citizens, giving violent criminals free rein; only an armed, law-abiding citizen might stop an active shooter; carrying weapons is a constitutional right. These arguments have some persuasive power but are ultimately false and misleading. It is important to refute them, once and for all.
The Parkland school massacre follows a familiar pattern. A confused and troubled youngster shunned by society mows down his schoolmates with an upgraded semi-automatic rifle. The resulting scene echoes dozens before it: boys and girls, riddled with bullets, lying lifeless on a bloodstained floor.
A short while later, the scene of the crime is festooned with flowers. Children, parents and relatives grieve and weep. Progressives call for stricter gun control. The National Rifle Association and its cronies are silent at first, before wheeling out the usual rhetoric: guns don’t kill, people do; education is the solution; one armed, responsible adult would have neutralized the active shooter.
For a while, the nation is in an uproar. The president promises to do something – and yet nothing happens. As the rage subsides, the media move on to other things. The conveyor belt of massacre is left to keep turning: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Las Vegas, Parkland...
YET THIS time it is difficult to remain indifferent to the protest of the high school students and the “March for Our Lives.”
Even US President Donald Trump initiated some half-hearted measures: banning accessories that can upgrade semi-automatic guns to automatics and raising the minimum age of gun holding from 18 to 21. Then, being Trump, he changed his mind. Arrogant Fox News analysts, like Kelly Ingraham, derided the protesters in venomous tweets. As expected, the NRA remains unmoved and unrepentant.
Several right-wing blogs have posted a picture of a young Israeli woman ordering a drink at a bar with an M-16 rifle hanging off her shoulder. Look, they say, in the Jewish state a young woman can relax in a bar with a gun and nobody cares. Only that this woman is not a civilian. She is a soldier on active duty. Actually, Israeli gun policy is very restrictive. The vast majority of gun owners are soldiers, policemen or security guards. In the army you learn first and foremost not how to shoot but when not to. Anybody who passes IDF training has been taught to respect safety rules and to treat weapons with great caution. Soldiers are watched closely. If commanders and superiors fear that they might be a danger to themselves or others, they will take their weapons away, no questions asked. Thus, Israel offers no kind of support for US gun advocates.
Another argument posits that one law-abiding citizen with a gun may stop an active shooter in their tracks. This is reasonable in theory, but in practice a lunatic may massacre people with minimal training: he only has to open fire. By contrast, to neutralize him a law-abiding citizen must aim with great precision, under time pressure and surrounded by innocent bystanders. That requires considerable training.
Trump has made a case for arming teachers and training them to stop active shooters.
In fact, he has proposed turning them into professional security guards. In that case, why not hire armed security personnel, instead of wasting teachers’ time in combat training? As the president said, a gun-free zone without an armed guard might become a shooting range for a mass killer. A gun-free zone with armed guards, however, would be much safer. That applies to all schools and universities.
There is also a third, slightly more persuasive argument. Gun control laws would only deprive law-abiding citizens of arms, while professional criminals will continue to obtain them on the black market. A similar argument is used in immigration debates. Recently, the security expert Jack Anderson argued that walls and border barriers only stop decent, benign immigrants, while criminal types find ways to circumvent them.
But for gun control, this argument is invalid, too. Unlike terrorist attacks or criminal assassinations, most massacres are not perpetrated by professional criminals.
The culprits are often alienated youngsters, not people who can effortlessly navigate the corridors of the criminal black market. For such people, it is much easier to buy guns in the local sport shop or in Walmart. If our goal is to stop massacres, and not gun crime in general, then restrictions on gun purchase is exactly what we need. Active shooters tend to be lone wolves. It is difficult to find them; easier to keep guns out of their hands.
Finally, there is the constitutional argument, which is perhaps the most difficult to take seriously. When the Constitution was promulgated, the founding fathers were thinking of muskets, not semi-automatic rifles, high-capacity magazines and other tools of mass murder. The conditions today are so different from the 18th century that it would be ridiculous to read the Second Amendment as a literal commandment.
SO WHAT should we do? The first step is to define the problem properly. True, the majority of gun violence involves handguns. Yet our present goal is not to stop all gun crime but to keep rifles away from unstable lone wolves. Gun control should focus on weapons with high killing capacity, such as semi-automatic rifles.
Other weapons should be restricted, too, as they are in Israel. They should be purchasable only in licensed shops, after background checks and periodic training courses. Holders of hunting licenses should be able to buy hunting rifles, and citizens who live in remote areas should be able to arm themselves for self-defense.
Guns must be taken away from people who suffer from mental issues, as well as from suspected and convicted criminals.
People who shoot for sport should still be able to use state-of-the-art guns, but only in shooting ranges. There can be no reason to take them home or to carry them in the street.
Such restrictions will reduce the number of firearms circulating and make it difficult for confused youngsters to get hold of them. They will also make prevention much easier. Today, even suspicious persons followed by the FBI or the police may buy guns without let or hindrance. In places that ban unlicensed gun holding, any police officer may stop an armed person and ask them questions, before they start shooting children. Members of Congress from both parties need to consider such restrictions, before the next school massacre. The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.