To prevent gun violence, pick battles carefully

The News TribuneJanuary 18, 2013 

Vice President Joe Biden, noted for his bloopers, made a cogent and critical point Wednesday about upcoming congressional battle over gun restrictions.

“We’re going to need voices in those areas, in those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong, to speak up and to say this is important. It can’t just be the usual suspects.”

“The usual suspects” presumably means the liberal, urban folks – often Easterners – who have dominated gun control advocacy over the years with a spectacular lack of success. Many are hostile to guns in general and can’t comprehend why anyone would own one.

Biden didn’t go quite this far, but we will: The success of gun legislation will largely depend on the support of people who lawfully own and enjoy firearms, but don’t share the absolutism of National Rifle Association leaders and other hard-liners.

Those gun owners will buy aggressive new measures to keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people. But any attempt to criminalize their own weapons will trigger a ferocious political backlash.

This argues against attempts to categorically ban “assault weapons.” Such legislation is likely to fail – and could take more important measures down with it.

It is notoriously difficult to define what an assault weapon is. Even the AR-style rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre was nothing special mechanically. Remove its black, collapsible stock, pistol grip and extended magazine, replace them with a brown wooden stock and smaller magazine, and it would look and act like an ordinary hunting rifle of modest power.

Millions of law-abiding people, many of them veterans, simply like the military-style accessories. So be it. Some quarrels are worth spending political capital on. This isn’t one of them.

The legislative focus should be on universal background checks for all firearm sales, heightened school safety, high-capacity magazines, enforcement and psychiatric intervention.

If we’re going to pick a fight with a particular class of gun, it should be handguns.

Rifles – of any kind – are not commonly involved in crimes. Criminals prefer weapons they can hide in their pockets.

Roughly 11,000 Americans are shot to death annually, overwhelmingly with handguns. This is the equivalent of a Sandy Hook massacre every day of the year. Nearly twice that many people – most with treatable mental illnesses – commit suicide with handguns. That makes three Sandy Hook massacres a day

The aftermath of that atrocity has provided America with a rare opportunity to revisit its entire approach to gun violence. Measures that would prevent the most violence should not be hostage to measures that would prevent the least – especially after they fail in Congress.

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