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Column/Op-Ed, News, Politics, Pop Culture, Social

Gun Control in a Post-Aurora World: How We Can Move Forward

As a nation heals over the horrible attack in Aurora, Colorado, the topic of gun rights has resurfaced, and not in the way we would expect. Instead of galvanizing writers, politicians, bloggers, and everyday Americans, the toic has been discussing the topic itself. There is a resurgence of old theories – blame the media, blame violence in our movies, music, and advertising, blame gun advocates – as well as a sense of cynicism that nothing exactly changes.

Before I begin, though, there are several things I wish to address. This article was in the works since before the horrific assault in Theater 9, and it has been strongly rewritten to address other emerging topics on this matter, but the bulk of my criticisms on current gun laws have largely remained the same. Also, I write this in the memory of the 12 fallen theater-goers in Aurora. I wrote a previous article for this site and the movie site SaveTheSeat where I discussed my raw emotion over the incident as an American and as a theater-goer, and I still believe that, above all the rhetoric of gun violence and violence in media that will be on the forefront for the next few weeks, that the victims of this heinous act deserve our full respect and attention. I have seen writers who have said “Well, if this or that had happened, this wouldn’t have happened.” I refuse to write anything like that because the horrible act happened. We should not be troubling victims and their families with what-ifs when they are trying to just begin to cope with such brutal inhumanity.

Instead, I will – with utmost respect – look towards the future, so we can learn about the loopholes and the ramifications of this, to hopefully curb another one of these attacks from happening. I must be tragically realistic: we cannot stop every henious crime, try as we might. This was an unimaginable attack on our most vulnerable and most cherished venues we go to as American, the movie theater. Another one of these monster could hurt us at any given time at any given venue. But if we can figure how the system failed us, then we can figure out how to prevent another attack from happening this way again.

But this article should not be a knee-jerk reaction to fear and concern. As I mentioned above, this was an article in the process about how to tighten loose ends in both federal and state gun laws. We should not be looking at how to prevent this exact sort of attack from happening, but thinking one step ahead, creating a dialogue of preventative and safe gun control. I understand the desire of people to act, especially out of fear. In Colorado over the weekend, there was a 25% rise in gun purchases, prompted by fears directly resulting from the attack, and requests for concealed-arms training courses are selling out. The federal government has ensured Americans that this is an isolated incident. But I know that will drive people to make rash choices and decisions in this moment of rage and fear. We need to be able to think reasonably and use this influx of motivation to fix as many problems as we can, not just the ones in this attack.

Finally, as I said in my previous article, I refuse to write the name of the attacker behind this assault. As recent media has reported, the former University of Colorado student is exhibiting symptoms of either complete pyschosis he has been fitted for a mouth guard to stop him from spitting at guards – or a disturbing acting prowess to try and win a nearly impossible to claim insanity argument – his elaborate plan involved weeks of planning, a shocking plot to let an unsuspecting person trip his booby-trapped apartment, most certainly claiming even more lives, and mailing his detailed plan of action to his former school. But we will never truly understand his sadistic actions, and nor should we. We should banish his name and image, forget who he was, and instead remember the victims, who are often forgotten as the media and experts try to comprehend his actions. A Huffington Post article, where families are urging the media to focus on the victims, and not the killer, has furthered my resolve. Unless a future article I write forces me to use his name to best articulate a point and inform my audience, I will repect their wishes and I will not use his name.

In years passed, acts of violence were met with swift action by a motivated American populace. In 1929, when Al Capone lined up seven rival mobsters from various competing Chicago gangs and executed them with Thompson submachine guns, their bodies splatters across the front pages of the newspapers with headlines calling it the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, Americans had enough. Prohibition-era mobsters had become a public menace. Five years later, President Franklin Roosevelt, in one of the first acts of his storied 16 year Presidential career, he signed the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal act of its kind, meant to regulate the weapons preferred by gangsters, such as Thompson machine guns and short barreled shotguns. The law, which charged an expensive tax and strict government regulation, was a means around the Second Amendment right to own a firearm and did not affect handguns.

But acts of violence tend to lead to further and further restrictions across the 20th Century. By 1968, when the assassinations of American leaders had become commonplace, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which heavily regulated firearms, including a ban on felons, former mental patients, and illegal immigrants from owning firearms; creating a federal firearms license to prohibit direct mail orders of firearms and prevent unlicensed users from cross state lines to purchase a firearm; and mandating serial numbers on all firearms made in the United States (imported weapons were severely limited to the point of near prohibition).

The last great regulation to the gun laws was in 1994, when the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994 was passed. It was named in honor of White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was severely injured by John Hinckley, Jr. in 1981 during the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The law, which took much longer to pass due to campaigns by the National Rifle Association, lead to the requirement of background checks and delayed waiting period on purchasing firearms. The same year, the federal Assault Weapons Ban was also signed into law, with a ten year sunset clause. In 2004, the law was not renewed because there was insufficient evidece to support the claim that the ban had little effect due to the rarity of assault rifle used in crimes.

Since then, there have been other horrific massacres. Columbine High School, not far from the Aurora theater. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. The attack that nearly claimed the life of Representative Gabby Giffords. While these attacks differed and were abused by loopholes – The Columbine shooters were legally too young to purchase a firearm, but a friend of age helped them out – there had been no really strong motivation to create further firearm restrictions.

 

The NRA’s most famous member, the late actor Charlton Heston

Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast suggests that a powerful resurgence of the National Rifle Association lobby is to blame. Existing since the Civil War, the organization became politicized in the 1970s and when the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, the National Rifle Association has been riding high while  gun control organizations struggle to stay afloat. Tomasky claims that the organization’s key to success – with a strong following and publicity –  was by defeating political incumbents who were gun control advocates, and maintaining a no-compromise stance on gun rights driven by constantly telling members horror stories about how the pansy gun-hating liberals are – FINALLY – going to get rid of every single gun in the United States and repeal their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Interestingly enough, while most Americans support further gun control legislation, voters have not used their electing power to build a strong gun control coalition.

One of the arguments coming out of the writings of gun rights bloggers and writers is the claim that “Had everyone in the theater been armed – or at least one theatergoer – the tragedy would not have been as severe.” I find this argument to be not only insulting to victims of this heinous act, but a complete fallacy that would have endangered even more lives. The National Rifle Association is currently trying to push their sponsored “Stand Your Ground” law in all 50 states, the same law that George Zimmerman is using as the basis of his defense in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Say Colorado had a Stand Your Ground law allowing concealed weapons to be on any person and could be used in self-defense. In a dark, crowded and loud theater just after midnight, a heavily-armed madman tosses disorienting tear gas and fires into the panicked crowd. Just picturing yourself in that awful event is hard to imagine, but to imagine someone being able to fire back at the attacker? The killer was at a terrible advantage that not even an experienced shooter could have accounted for, placing theater-goers in even further danger of being hit by gunfire from a theater-goer standing their ground, plus placing themselves in danger of being attacked by police as another attacker.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney – who once held some particularly strong gun beliefs – have been unclear about their actions lately when it comes to gun control on their campaigns, perhaps because it would be a blow to either campaign to mention gun control. On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gave a vague stance on behalf of the President, saying he will continue to “protect the Second Amendment” and yet he will also make it harder for individuals who shouldn’t have guns to obtain them. The President will also propose no new legislation and instead reinforce current laws. It was only on Wednesday did the President break his silence and called for bipartisan support to protect the rights of American gun owners, but also hinted that a resurrection of the Assault Rifle Ban could come back, as he said, “…[A] lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals. That they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.” Mitt Romney has also remained tight-lipped, incorrectly claiming that the shooter’s guns were purchased illegally (his campaign later said that Romney meant the explosives in the apartment, and not the weapons purchased in the attack) and that current laws do not need to be revised, because changing laws ” won’t make the bad things go away.”

So what should we do?

This is not a flat-out assault on the gun rights advocates. Liberal as I may be, I don’t believe in repealing the Second Amendment. I personally don’t like guns, but that should not stop any American from being able to own a firearm to hunt or defend their lives and property. That being said, there does need to be limitations and ways to curb offenders from using guns for acts of horror.

Firstly, a reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban – without a sunset clause – is something I believe most Americans can agree on. While the National Rifle Associate fears that a ban on Assault Rifles is the next step towards the full repeal of the Second Amendment, that is simply not true. Most handguns, pistols, shotguns, and rifles are intended to either ward off an attacker – by scaring them off or wounding them – or killing an animal cleanly. An assault rifle does neither of these things. An assault rifle is ineffective in hunting for the same reason is it ineffective as a defense people: it would rip the target to shreds. Even a trained miltary shooter or police marksman can tell you that assault rifles on full auto are only meant to scare off attackers, and is only a better shot when firing one shot at a time, like a regular rifle. Advanced shotguns, such as auto-shotguns and other types of heavily military-grade weaponry should remain with the military and the police. Now I’m sure an NRA member would not mind picking AK-47 rounds out of a mutilated deer carcass, and they would certaintly argue that an attacker deserves to be overkilled for attacking them with assault rifle rounds, but we do not live in a vigilante society. Contrary to the militia belief that one day, Americans will need their guns to revolt against tyranny, the police and military are our trained protectors, and civilians owning assault rifles is simply not necessary.

For the reasons I mentioned above, we should also be looking to ban police and military grade explosives from civilians. Unfortunately, explosives can be made by the most creatives of means, including the use of fertilizer for acts of terror. But the shooter was able to toss some sort of disorienting tear gas canister into the crowd. No civilian needs tear gas to ward off an attacker or to hunt, as far as I know. Explosives like these or smoke grenades and the like should be banned as well.

One of the most shocking parts of this story is the arsenal at the monster’s disposal. For $3,000 an AR-15 with 3,000 rounds, – including a drum magazine with 100 rounds firing 50 or 60 shots a minute that would have been restricted under legislation that has been stalled for over a year – two handguns with another 3,000 rounds, a shotgun with over 350 rounds, a knife, and a combat assault vest.

And he bought this all online with the same ease one would purchase an item from Amazon.

This is truly unacceptable. A gun purchase is supposed to be a sign of trust, where a gun shop owner would determine whether or not they should allow their prospective customer to get a federal background check and go on the road to purchasing a gun. In fact, a gun club owner turned the shooter away when he heard his strange voicemail message, which gave him a bad vibe.

An online purchase vaporizes this transaction of trust. Not to sound alarmist, but what could stop anyone from going online and buying arms for another attack? In a nation where the FBI can work with the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry of America to stop piracy in American and overseas, or thwarting the child porn industry, why is this same level of protection not ensured with gun sellers? Surely protecting the rights of these lobbies is not more prudent than protecting human lives. I propose that the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) now takes a stronger stance in regulating online gun purchases.

While I prefer that ALL gun purchases in the United States be made between a customer and a gun seller strictly IN PERSON – an exception can be made for military, police, and manufactures selling in bulk to gun sellers – there must be a very strict set of regulations on weapon purchases online enforced by the ATF. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns has remained very critical of both parties for not taking a stance on gun control, and has been a figure in the fight against illegally transporting guns across state lines. ATF must crackdown on illegal guns being transported. In short, every single gun owner must be trusted, creating a community of gun owners with a rapport with gun sellers.

Within this trust, gun owners should have their guns and licenses continuously renewed, with background checks maintained every 2 to 5 years to prevent gun owners who become troubled from keeping their weapons and doing harm to Americans. Once again, it is within every American’s right to keep their weapons, but guns can kills. To have such a dangerous item in someone’s disposal must be heavily regulated to ensure the safety of others. It is with this argument that I take my strongest stance against the NRA and say that Stand Your Ground laws should not be nationalize. Their argument posits that if everyone carried a gun, then everyone would think twice about starting trouble, not knowing if their person has a gun. As I mentioned earlier, however, a bystander defending themselves in Theater Nine could have accidentally caused more harm than anything. Moreso, I would say that everyone having a gun would unnerve people and make them feel less safe. Any fight, any confrontation in the street could suddenly escalate into a bloodbath. We don’t need that.

My final point is that there has been talk about the influence of the media in this case. It harkens back to 1999, when singer Marilyn Manson became a sudden scapegoat of the Columbine shooting attacks, simply because his music is violent. Currently, the news has focused on the killer’s claims that he was “The Joker”, the sadistic villain of “The Dark Knight”. Articles have demanded action be taken against violent media and advertising – one writer claimed Bane’s mask in “The Dark Knight Rises” was too disturbing. This is a ridiculous argument that tries to pin the awful incident on something that doesn’t exist. Violent entertainment doesn’t kill. Guns kill. I understand that there is a fear of a culture desensitized to violence would beget more violence. If this was true, there would be an uptick in murder every time a violent movie, game, or show came out. The reality is that a violent and crazy person will not be violent and crazy because of violent entertainment. Perhaps they would obsess over it or become fixated on it. But it didn’t spur it. Violent entertainment does not stunt free will. So I say stop trying to influence and accuse media for what happened in that theater. Instead, we should focus on the real issues – the loopholes in our gun laws – and work to prevent another tragedy from happening again.

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About Richard L. Vargas

Among many things, I'm a writer, blogger, news junkie, and pop culture enthusiast from New York City.

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