Why Americans Tolerate Gun Violence

The Price of Pleasure, Part 1

by Tony Comstock

The video below is raw footage of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The video shows people being hit and bodies down. I find it upsetting to watch, but I think it's important to this post to see how rapidly a revolver can be fired, so I've included it.


 

On this day Reagan was escorted by one of the most highly trained protection and anti-assassination squads in the world. His would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr. was a delusional loser, armed with a Röhm RG-14 .22 six-shot revolver.

Just as Reagan was about to entered the safety of the presidential limousine, Hinckley drew his revolver and crouched in a firing position. And before any of the dozens of Secret Service agents or police could react, Hinckley emptied his revolver.

Of the six bullets Hinckley fired, four found bodies. 
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White House Press Secretary James Brady was struck in the head. District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty was struck in the back. As he used his body to shield the president Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy was struck in the abdomen. The last bullet ricocheted off the side of the limousine and struck the president.

By firearms standards, a .22 revolver is a peashooter. But in the hands of a person who doesn't care if he lives or dies, even in a crowd of policemen and Secret Service agents, this peashooter represents a devastating amount of firepower. It's a miracle that no one died.

When the news broke about last month's shooting, six dead and 13 more wounded, including a U.S. congresswoman, there were the usual angry words from both sides of the gun-control debate. But I was surprised that I didn't hear very much about the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.

I'm a gun owner and remember the debate around the Assault Weapons Ban. On my side of the aisle, the AWB was derided as the "ugly gun law" because it sought to ban weapons with "military styling" and included a list of characteristics that did nothing to increase the lethality of a weapon, but did make the appearance of these weapons more frightening to people who are not familiar with guns; very good for holding them up on TV and declaring, "We're getting these weapons off the streets."

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When Jared Lee Loughner arrived at the La Toscana Village mall he was carrying with him a Glock 19 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

The Glock has an interesting history where gun control in the U.S. is concerned.
Signed into law after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Gun Control Act of 1968 established a point-system for imported weapons penalizing things like short barrels, small caliber, short overall length or height, non-adjustable sights, etc.

The intent of this point system was to restrict the importation and sale of inexpensive handguns, often referred to as "Saturday Night Specials," by penalizing characteristics common to these weapons.

As a result several design aspects of the Glock, an Austrian-made gun, are there in response to the BATF points system. For example, the Glock sports a notorious flimsy adjustable-sight system that is often replaced with fixed sights when the gun is put into service with police departments.

The nature of the sight system on Loughner's Glock would not play a role in his murderous rampage. He fired from close range. The Gun Control Act of 1968 penalized small-caliber weapons, like the .22 revolver used by Sirhan Sirhan; but Loughner's weapon was a 9mm, a caliber rewarded by the BATF points system.

But from 1994 to 2004, there was a law on the books that might have reduced the number of casualties on that fateful Saturday morning.

Buried in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban's meaningless restrictions on cosmetic features was a ban on magazines of over a 10-round capacity.

The ban was porous. It did not include magazines manufactured before the ban, and such magazines were widely available. It was derided by gun-rights advocates as a meaningless imposition on the gun rights of law-abiding citizens.

But the 30-shot magazines carried by Loughner were not manufactured before 1994. The 30-shot magazines Loughner carried were manufactured after the AWB sun-downed in 2004.

Glocks are popular with law enforcement and as military sidearms. But 30-shot magazines for them are not; people who really own semi-automatic pistols for law enforcement and self-defense find the protruding magazine an encumbrance that is more trouble than the added firepower is worth, even in a life-or-death situation. For a Glock, or any weapon outside the battlefield, a 30-shot magazine is a novelty, an amusement; a chance to make a lot of noise and smoke and send a lot of lead down range. I have a 30-shot magazine for my Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic rifle.

It's fun. You set up a bunch of cans down range and then knock them all down -- firing off 30 rounds just as fast as you can pull the trigger.

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After the Tucson shooting, I wondered how things might have been different if, instead of focusing on things like pistol grips and bayonet mounts and flash-suppressors, the proponents of the ban had simple stuck to one thing: the abolishment of high-capacity magazines for civilian weapons.

I don't think such a ban would stop a determined person from acquiring a high-capacity magazine. Certainly such a ban would not have stopped Loughner from acquiring a semi-automatic pistol, and there's nothing to suggest the sort of ban that would have stopped Loughner from acquiring a weapon is something this country is willing to consider any time soon. As Jim pointed out in his post "What We Take for Granted", it doesn't matter what the rest of the world does. Here in America, we like our guns and tolerate the mayhem that comes with them.

But if the high capacity magazine provision of the 1994 AWB had not sun-downed in 2004, I believe Loughner would have fired only 10 shots, not 30, before being wrestled to the ground.

And I believe that would have made a difference. 


In part 2,  I'm going to talk about pork, boxing, football, and sexually transmitted infections.

Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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