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Colorado Shooting Suspect’s Legal Arsenal: Where Is the Outrage?

BU prof explains politicians’ aversion to gun control debate

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

One of the legally obtained weapons used by Aurora shootings suspect James Holmes was the military-style AR-15, which reportedly jammed due to a problem with the 100-shot magazine feeding it. Photo by Keary O.

According to police in Aurora, Colorado, James T. Holmes used three types of weapons on Friday, July 20 to fire on unsuspecting theatergoers at a mall premiere of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and wounding 59 others. The weapons he reportedly used were not only legal, they are among the most popular in America’s thriving firearms market, according to a report in yesterday’s New York Times. The United States is the most heavily armed population in the world, with a 2007 small arms survey estimating that the nation numbers 90 guns per 100 people. That number is likely to have climbed; the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently reported a 15 percent jump in background checks for gun buyers from 2010 to 2011.

The tools of the rampage—a semiautomatic version of the M-16 rifle used by the military known as an AR-15, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol—were just part of the 24-year-old suspect’s vast arsenal, along with explosives, all of which were reportedly obtained legally at gun stores or over the Internet. (The expiration of a federal assault weapons ban in 2004 has made it easier to purchase semiautomatics like the AR-15.) But in the wake of the tragedy, both President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney have yet to address the issue of gun control, and the only prominent politician calling for an urgent review of gun control measures was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the wake of a string of deadly mass shootings in the United States over the last 15 years, why is there widespread reluctance to address an issue that is staring Americans in the face? To shed light on the state of gun control politics in the United States, Bostonia put this and other questions to Graham Wilson, College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of the political science department. Author of nine books, Wilson’s research focuses primarily on interest groups and their relationship with government and policymaking.

Bostonia: President Obama was in Aurora, Colorado, over a week ago fulfilling his duty as what the Washington Post calls “healer-in-chief.” But can he avoid an urgent discussion of increasing gun controls, at the very least restoring some kind of ban on automatic assault weapons?

Wilson: I have become totally cynical about politicians’ response to the recurring massacres. They say they are sorry for the victims and their families, deplore the event, and do nothing to prevent a recurrence. Our national policy is to make incredibly powerful guns available to the mentally disturbed so we have to accept terrible massacres like this on a recurring basis as the inevitable consequence of the choices our elected politicians have made.

What is at stake for politicians who speak out in favor of increased gun controls?

Any politician with the guts to suggest even the mildest restriction on even the most lethal of guns will incur the enduring enmity of the gun lobby—notably the NRA [National Rifle Association].

How do you think the Aurora tragedy will affect politics in Colorado, a major battleground state?

Minimally. All the politicians will say how terrible this is, how sorry they are for victims and families and do nothing to prevent high-powered semiautomatic weapons from being made freely available to deeply disturbed people. And of course the Roberts Court has re-interpreted the Second Amendment to make it harder for any politician with the bravery to act to do so.

Why do you think Michael Bloomberg is the only politician who immediately demanded action on gun control in the wake of the Aurora shootings?

Because he is mayor of New York City, where the power of the NRA is least.

Who do you believe is responsible for the prevailing all-or-nothing reasoning for dismissing gun control, the sense that if the restrictions aren’t foolproof they shouldn’t exist at all?

The NRA has made it its policy that everyone should have access to all sorts of firearms, including the most lethal. Politicians of both parties bow down to and worship the NRA. Note how ten or more years ago, the massacres repeatedly prompted some calls for gun control. As your question suggests, nowadays we just accept that “stuff happens” and a few dozen people get shot.

Gallup polls over the last two decades have shown that fewer than half of Americans polled are in favor of stricter laws governing the sales of firearms and ammunition, with only slight blips in the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. To what do you attribute support for weapons that appear to have no purpose beyond firing the most lethal shots in the shortest time?

I don’t think most people have any sense of how frightening it would be if well-intentioned, minimally trained citizens started shooting off guns like the AK-47, even in self-defense. I think it is partly a matter of partisan politics; being a Republican nowadays means resisting any gun control. But I think it is also part of the wider decline in trust in government. As we don’t trust government to protect us, we better get an Uzi.

Americans live with regulations governing all aspects of our lives, and yet it seems to be only gun control that sets off slippery slope arguments about a totalitarian state. What role does the gun lobby play in promoting this argument?

Americans used to support gun control; there is nothing historically or culturally determined about the current situation.

How did the Second Amendment become a blanket justification for opposition of all gun controls?

For most of our history, the Second Amendment was interpreted as not providing for an individual right to own guns. The Roberts Court, as part of its judicial activism, reversed 75 years of clear precedent in deciding that the Second Amendment did provide an individual right to guns. But even the Roberts Court would agree that, like all constitutional rights, the right to own guns is subject to reasonable restriction. Ironically, the Roberts Court would deny the right to own weapons that might be useful in resisting tyrannical government, such as anti-tank missiles.

Why is the gun control debate so emotionally charged, and in what ways does it divide the nation?

An important element in this is the culture wars. Passionate advocates of widespread gun ownership tend to oppose abortion rights, environmental protection, affirmative action, et cetera. We are two countries. Our cultural and political divides are deeper and more passionate than in any of the advanced democracies—France, the UK, Germany, et cetera— that I know. Guns are part of the culture wars.

In spite of Big Tobacco’s efforts to deny the link between cigarette smoking and early death, the government is imposing increasing restrictions on the sale of cigarettes, and smoking is becoming increasingly taboo. Why doesn’t the number of gun deaths stir a similar, broad level of outrage?

Because gun lovers reasonably say that criminals will always get guns. Even with effective restrictions, this country is so awash in guns it would take decades to retrieve them. And every year that goes by means that even more and more terrifying weapons are widely distributed.

It may well be that nothing can be done that is effective. The NRA’s effective advocacy of having all types of weapon readily available has created a situation from which it would be incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves. We are awash in firearms more suitable to warfare than self-defense or hunting.

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