In the wake of Friday's Newtown, Conn., school shooting and other, similar massacres around the country this year, it is appropriate for lawmakers to rethink lapsed gun-control measures, especially the assault weapons ban that Congress decided not to renew in 2004.
Newtown's Adam Lanza, Oregon mall shooter Jacob Tyler Roberts and Colorado movie theater gunman James Holmes all used AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, a civilian version of the military's M-16 that was illegal to buy or sell for 10 years under the assault weapons ban. Now it's the nation's most popular rifle, with more than 3 million Americans owning one, according to CBS News. In some places they're selling especially quickly now, as people suspect a ban is coming.
The M-16/AR-15 is, like it or not, an American icon, a star of movies and video games. Gun store owner Michael Timlin told CBS News, "You just see it and you want it. It's just the same reason why someone stays on line for 25 hours to buy an Apple iPhone."
That's an irresponsible way to view a weapon, as sexy or cool, but it's a part of American culture - a part we all have to work on.
Who needs such a weapon for anything but killing large numbers of people?
But while an assault weapons ban is worthwhile, it probably wouldn't do much good in the near future. There are already so many guns in America, and most criminals can get one if they want, legal or not. Studies by the Small Arms Survey and the United Nations show that the U.S. has 88.8 guns per 100 people, leading the world by a long shot. The next-closest nation, Yemen, has 54.8.
It would take a long time for a ban to reduce the number of assault weapons out there, although there's no time like the present to start.
Why so many? Well, part of it must be that most countries don't have anything like the U.S.'s Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms to provide for "a well regulated militia." Mostly, the idea is so Americans can fight back in case our country is invaded - or, some say, in case the federal government becomes oppressive. Considering, however, that the there has been no major ground invasion on our nation's soil in almost 200 years, and considering the huge global power of the U.S. military, it would seem we shouldn't be so fearful as to justify having nearly one gun for every man, woman and child.
On the other hand, looking at the data, there's no correlation between gun ownership and gun homicide. Although handguns and assault rifles are designed purely to kill humans, Americans don't use them for that purpose anywhere near as often as people do in many other countries. The U.S.'s rate of gun homicide is 28th in the world at 2.97 per 100,000 people, according to data compiled by Britain's Guardian newspaper. The leading nations - Honduras (68.43), El Salvador (39.9) and Jamaica (39.4) - have relatively few guns per capita, all less than a tenth that of the U.S.
So there are a lot of factors, much more than just how many guns are out there. We suspect much of it has to do with a culture of violence. The U.S. isn't the worst, but it has room for improvement.
We don't think that improvement involves urging even more people to carry firearms. It's not about having teachers and principals pack heat in school, waiting in fear for another Adam Lanza to burst through the door - as recommended in a recent press release by the Libertarian Party. First off, this would be an accident waiting to happen, but it's also the path of paranoia, fostering a national tension that's liable to set off volatile individuals like Lanza and Holmes.
A paranoid culture is a bigger danger than the guns themselves. As the NRA and its supporters often say, guns don't shoot themselves, but gun enthusiasm, fear, callousness or hate can lead someone to the point of thinking mass murder wouldn't be so bad.
That's also why it's important, on a local level, to identify mental health problems early and accurately, and to thoroughly consider the side effects of psych drugs.
Still, there's nothing to fear from a bit of reasonable gun control to keep our informal national militia a little more "well regulated." Nothing Congress can do will knock the U.S. out of its top spot as the world's most well-armed nation, so an assault weapons ban wouldn't be a threat to national security - the opposite, really, in that it's a check on some of the looser cannons among us.
But again, its benefits would be miniscule at best.
The real way to reduce gun violence in this country is out of the government's hands. It's for Americans, as individuals and communities, to commit themselves to being more peaceful, kind and brave, and to reduce the fear that prompts an inordinate number of us to arm up.
It's about responsible choices by individuals. That's something gun advocates often talk about, too, but it cuts both ways. Just because we have a right to own guns, or to play violent video games, or to watch violent movies and TV shows, doesn't mean we should. Sure, most of the time these things do no tangible harm, and hunting guns do a lot of good in helping us get food. But the world would be a better place if a sizable percentage of Americans evaluated themselves responsibly and decided, "You know, I think I won't play (or let my kids play) that first-person-shooter video game," or, "I'll keep my hunting rifle, but I don't really need a handgun, too - much less an assault rifle."
What would happen to the guns people decide to give up? Well, this past weekend in New Jersey, a buy-back program led by the state's attorney general brought in 1,100 guns. That's one idea. Maybe New York could get a sponsor for something like that.
It has always puzzled us that many of the staunchest gun rights advocates also talk about this being a Christian nation, where "in God we trust." Actually, Jesus Christ called people to pacifism: to turn the other cheek when hit, to love your enemies, to trust in God like the lilies of the field, to not fight back when they come to torture and crucify you, to not fear death as much as a life selfishly lived. That, regardless of your religious persuasion, is true bravery, true nobility, true love - the high road we should try to walk, whether it's the law of the land or not.