The National Rifle Association never tires of lambasting proposed legislation to regulate firearms as a nefarious conspiracy to keep guns out of the hands of “law-abiding citizens” while stoutly maintaining that only unfettered access to such weapons can make the country safer from gun violence. Hence the NRA bumper-sticker slogan, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

But, as the mass shooting in Las Vegas and numerous similar incidents have shown, it’s often difficult to determine whether someone’s a “law-abiding citizen” until after he pulls the trigger, taking innocent lives or his own life, while there’s data pointing to a strong correlation between the number of guns in circulation and the number of gun deaths.

Though the reasons for the Las Vegas shooter’s rampage are still obscure, the means are not. Stephen Paddock had 23 guns in his hotel room (a shooting perch on the 32d floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort), 12 of which were semi-automatic weapons converted to automatic, rapid-fire mode (up to nine rounds per second) through the use of bump-stocks and extended magazines. The weapons, bump-stocks and magazines were all legally acquired and possessed under federal and Nevada law. They enabled him to fire hundreds of rounds in just nine minutes, causing carnage that resulted in 58 deaths and nearly 500 wounded.

Paddock was an unlikely candidate for a mass murderer. A self-described “happy-go-lucky” guy and retired accountant who made millions through real estate investments and gambling, he had no criminal record, no apparent ties to terrorism, and no known history of mental illness, substance abuse or violent behavior.

As with James Hodgkinson, 66, who used an assault rifle to shoot high-ranking GOP Congressman Steve Scalise and two others at an Alexandria, Virginia, baseball practice last June 14, and Daniel Randall, 56, an ordained Protestant minister, former Air Force chaplain, and husband and father of three, who used a just-purchased shotgun to murder his 27-year-old daughter in Hebron, Maine, last Dec. 8, there was nothing in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to red flag Paddock as dangerous and nothing about his presentation that would have given a gun dealer pause about selling to him.

The unpredictability of the event notwithstanding, the death toll from Paddock’s rampage would undoubtedly have amounted to only a fraction of the butcher’s bill but for his ability to purchase military-style assault rifles and peripheral gear to convert these weapons into the equivalent of machine guns.

Statistics suggest that, when it comes to firearms, more is not better. Unless we assume that something about American culture makes us a uniquely violent people, the only plausible explanation for the orgy of gun violence in this country is the easy access to and virtually limitless availability of guns.

In 2015, according to the CDC, nearly 13,000 gun homicides (1,680 of them involving children) and over 22,000 gun suicides took place in the U.S., almost equaling the incidence of automobile accident fatalities for that year. For every person who died from gunshots, more than two suffered non-fatal injuries. More gunshot fatalities occurred between 1968 and the present (about 1.5 million) than in all the deaths (about 1.2 million) suffered in conflicts fought by this country since the war of independence.

Our gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average per capita rate of other high-income countries, not surprising considering that those countries impose much stricter control over gun possession and that Americans own 273 million guns, 42 percent of the 650 million civilian firearms worldwide.

Australia’s experience with gun control is instructive. After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia banned automatic and semiautomatic firearms and initiated a buy-back program that enabled the government to remove from circulation and destroy more than 600,000 civilian-owned firearms. It also adopted new licensing requirements, established a national firearms registry and instituted a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases. In the decade thereafter, mass shootings dropped to zero, and gun-related homicides and suicides by nearly two thirds.

Of course, we have an impediment to gun control that other developed countries don’t — constitutional protection for the right of civilians to bear arms. However, that right is far less sweeping than the NRA and its allies would have us believe.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as most recently interpreted by the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, protects an individual’s right to possess firearms, especially at home. But it’s not a free pass to buy, possess or carry any weapon, anywhere, for any purpose. Restrictions against carrying firearms in sensitive places like schools and government buildings, reasonable conditions imposed on the commercial sale of firearms, and prohibitions against possessing highly lethal weapons (particularly of the type not in common use when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791) were all cited by the court in Heller as constitutionally permissible.

Consider a type of restriction theoretically implied by Heller. The most advanced weapon in 1791 was single-shot, muzzle loading, black-powder flintlock rifle. Because it was so laborious to load and prime, the maximum number of shots that could be fired by a skilled musketeer was three per minute, and, because of its inaccuracy, its effective range was no longer than a football field (one-third to one-fifth the distance of the human targets at which Paddock was firing). How many victims could Stephen Paddock have claimed if he had only been able to acquire weapons having the performance specifications of a flintlock?

Nevertheless, gun rights advocates contemptuously dismiss restrictions on the sale of certain types of weapons, as well as systematic background checks on prospective purchasers, as wholly ineffective. They argue that career criminals and committed terrorists will always find illegal ways to acquire banned firearms, so why bother.

I agree with the premise that some bad actors will get their hands on firearms (whether through theft or smuggling), no matter how restrictive the law, but disagree with the conclusion that we should, therefore, open the door wide to sale and possession of virtually all types of firearms to just about anyone.

First, if bad guys are caught with banned firearms, they can be charged with illegal possession, an easy charge for prosecutors to make stick and a powerful lever for obtaining guilty pleas on other harder-to-prove criminal charges — both effective tools for locking up hard-core types. Second, a great deal of gun violence is committed by people who are not professional killers but who act out of impulse, mental illness, or feelings of desperation.

Through a more comprehensive system of background checks, coupled with the initiation of firearms registration and licensing requirements (like those which exist for motor vehicles), we would at least have a chance to screen out potential gun buyers and owners who’ve already demonstrated a propensity to harm themselves or others, and, through limitations on the lethality of firearms that could be sold or possessed, we would lessen the destructive impact of shooters who do run amuck.

If mass shootings can happen in Las Vegas, a gun-friendly city in a gun-friendly state, then more guns aren’t the answer to violence, because what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer.


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