The Need to Reform Assault Rifle Ownership … and Congress

In three hours, Omar Matteen fired more than 200 rounds of ammunition at clubgoers and police at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Using an assault rifle originally designed for military use that he had purchased legally, Mateen shot 103 people, of whom 49 were killed. Weapons like assault rifles pose challenges to the basic desires for firearm ownership and are extravagant options for self-defense and sport.

The use of assault rifles in mass shootings is unfortunately all but too common. The perpetrators of the recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, California; Roseburg, Oregon; Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, all utilized legally purchased assault rifles. While Timothy McVeigh’s use of ammonium nitrate to carry out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing prompted the Department of Homeland Security to track and regulate ownership of the chemical, and the 9/11 attacks led to the creation of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), no significant reforms have been made to address the recurring use of assault rifles in mass shootings.

Given the continued use of these weapons for malice, it is simply irresponsible to not improve regulation of assault rifle ownership. The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) currently regulates ownership of automatic rifles, that is, firearms that can fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. The process to acquire such a weapon is very lengthy: an application must be filed, a $200 federal transfer tax must be paid, passport photos must be submitted, a chief law enforcement official must sign the application and fingerprints must be taken — in addition to an FBI-led background check. Failure to comply with the NFA constitutes a 10-year prison sentence. The process to acquire semi-automatic rifles should be regulated in a similarly extensive manner. While a single trigger pull is required for each shot, quick reload and high capacity magazine functions still make it possible for mass shooters like Mateen to repeatedly fire round after round without hesitation. With the capability to fire between 45 and 60 rounds per minute, there’s a reason that semi-automatic rifles are the weapon of choice in mass shootings.

Reforming gun laws does not infringe upon constitutional rights. While the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, the right is not absolute, nor should it be. For example, the Second Amendment does not permit a civilian to keep a surface-to-air missile system in his or her backyard. With repeated mass shootings involving weapons initially designed for the military, Congress should extend the limitations of the amendment. As previously noted, a semi-automatic rifle is an extravagant option for sport and self-defense. Plenty of guns —  designed for the home rather than the battlefield can suffice the rudimentary desires of gun owners. A single-shot pistol can be used for self-defense; a bolt-action hunting rifle can be used for sport. One does not need to fire 45 to 60 rounds in a minute to fend-off a burglar or catch dinner.

The parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School are now suing Remington, the manufacturer of the AR-15. Holding the belief that the gun should not be allowed in civilian hands, the parents are challenging a seemingly unbeatable piece of legislation. The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act court case protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits when their product is used to kill. However, protection is not extended when the manufacturers sell their product negligently. Effectively, this means that if a gun retailer sells a gun to a person drunkenly yelling that they are going to shoot-up some place, the gun retailer is no longer immune from prosecution. The Sandy Hook parents are suing on the basis that selling civilians weapons with quick reload and high capacity capabilities is negligent from the get-go, irrespective of a specific negligent sale, and is reason enough to prosecute Remington. Whether or not the parents will be successful in court remains unclear. However, they have had success already in bringing attention to the case against civilian ownership of assault rifles.

Unfortunately, congressional action towards gun reform is met with constant roadblocks, most notably the National Rifle Association (NRA). Comprised of over four million Second Amendment-loving, anti-gun regulation members, the NRA wields remarkable influence in Congress. Since 1998, the NRA has doled out $3,781,803 to nearly 300 active members of Congress. In fear of losing that financial support, these members of Congress have subsequently taken firm stances against gun control legislation. Prostituting themselves to the NRA’s financial support, members of congress have unfortunately abandoned core values in order to remain in office. As a result, these NRA-financed members of Congress vote against bills that limit gun rights in order to maintain the flow of special-interest-group money. In light of the Orlando tragedy, Congress considered four different gun control bills. Not one passed. This NRA-driven stagnation comes in spite of mass murders becoming seemingly more common than bipartisan-approved legislation.

Justifying the ownership of these semi-automatic rifles by citing the Second Amendment is an unsound practice. When the founding fathers were designing the Bill of Rights, “arms” did not signify extended magazine, quick-reloading semi-automatic rifles capable of murdering dozens in seconds. Technology changed, and so should the law. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind” and that “as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change …  institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” This demonstrates the framers’ intention for the Constitution to be a continually updating document. Afterall, we seem to forget that the term amendment is synonymous with “revision” and “improvement.”

Reform needs to take place. Whether it means banning assault rifles, improving background checks or a combination of both, the regulation of military-grade weaponry is needed in a 21st-century America. Reformation of the way Congress operates must also occur. Jefferson even wrote, “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety,” and by blocking legislation that can prevent future tragedies, the government fails in its most basic function. Protecting people should take priority over partisanship. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time until another mass shooting takes place.

Brian Taggett is a College sophomore from Kalamazoo, MI

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