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Opinion: Banning the AR-15 is a distraction from the real issue

Eric Dehm
March 05, 2018 - 11:51 am

There's been a lot of talk about the AR-15 lately. Some of it has been factual and accurate, while some of it can charitably be described as breathless hyperbole. Much of it has centered around a possible ban of the rifle.

To me, this idea amounts to putting a bandage not on a wound itself, but on the blood surrounding it. I believe it's abundantly clear that the AR-15 is a symptom, not the cause, of these horrendous school shootings.

Three past incidents immediately come to mind as illustrations of why I believe this.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman murdered his wife and mother before ascending the main building at the University of Texas and opening fire on students below. He killed 15 and injured 31 from that perch. 

Over 40 years later, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus, to date the deadliest school shooting in American history.

Just 3 years ago, Christopher Harper-Mercer killed 10 students at Oregon's Umpqua Community College.

These three horrifying incidents have two things in common:

First, none involved an AR-15 or other variants of an "assault weapon." Whitman had a small arsenal with him, but mostly used a bolt-action rifle. Cho used handguns, as did Harper-Mercer, the only one of the three to have an AR-15 style rifle with him though he never fired it.

Secondly, and tellingly the one aspect they have in common with every other school shooting: the shooters had significant mental health problems that went unaddressed.  In fact, Whitman raised the issue in a note he wrote before opening fire in Austin:

"If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts... donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."

Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

He didn't write anything about preventing people from accessing the Remington 700 rifle he used in the process of committing an atrocity. Why is that? It's no great leap to assume if he hadn't had access to that specific rifle, Whitman would simply have used another. He had already decided he was going to kill as many people as possible and the tools he used to do so were of little, or no, importance to him. The evidence? As I mentioned, before shooting up the school Whitman killed his mother and hie wife.  How? With a knife.

So it is clear the AR-15 is not used in every school shooting, but there are factors regarding the rifle that are leading to calls for a ban. Some of them are nonsensical claims that the AR turns the average person into an unstoppable killing machine, or that there is no use for the rifle besides mass murder. But some are legitimate concerns, specifically these:

  1. Is it the typical weapon of choice for the psycopath who wants to shoot up a school? Yes. 
  2. Is it the most efficient weapon for someone with that goal? It's arguable, but it might very well be.
  3. Is it military-grade hardware? As a 13-year Navy/OEF veteran who carried my rifle nearly everywhere I went in RC-North (and is also familiar with the AR-15) I can tell you the answer is yes, if they are of a similar caliber. Other than selective fire capability, they're more similar than not to the M-4 or M-16 as I have written before.

Of course there is another question that counteracts those within the frame of this discussion, and it's the most important one as far as I am concerned.

If we ban the AR-15, will school shootings stop? The answer to that is, of course, no. There are numerous examples including, but not limited to, the three cited above where the AR-15 wasn't involved at all.

Even with those where it has been used, do you really think that would have prevented the incidents? Let's say we were able to remove them from circulation (which would be a tall order as the number of ARs owned by Americans is estimated to be in the millions) would Adam Lanza suddenly no longer have the despicable desire to murder kindergartners?

Would he have refused to use another weapon because he had intended to use the AR-15? I highly doubt it.

It seems very unlikely that an AR-15 ban would lead to a change of heart for Lanza or Nikolas Cruz, but instead to a change in tools with the same end result. 

So if the AR-15 ban wouldn't have stopped them, what would? I think there are a few possible answers to this, and all involve mental healthcare in one form or another. Whether it's through involuntary commitment or something less invasive and intrusive when possible, it seems clear the answer lies in treating the lone aspect that each incident has in common differently than we have. This covers a variety of issues from treatment itself to investigating tips on dangerous individuals. 

There's also the uncomfortable fact that there simply must be communication between the authorities and mental health professionals regarding those who are receiving treatment. That seems to cause some trouble for those who see it as a violation of the right to privacy and a stigmatization that might lead fewer to seek help. It is odd to me that people can be so concerned with the rights of possibly dangerous individuals yet ready to strip a right from those who are no threat at all, which is nearly every AR-15 owner.

Am I exaggerating? No. Considering there are millions of AR-15s, and rifles of any type were used in less than 300 homicides in the US on average for each of the last 5 years, it's a factual, verifiable statement. 

Handguns are a demonstrably greater threat to the population at large, and as Cho illustrates, and are certainly as destructive as a rifle in the hands of a madman. That same gun in the hands of a law-abiding, sane citizen is no greater threat to our streets or schools than the butcher knife in your kitchen. In fact, guns are of value to society in the hands of the law-abiding citizen. 

I'm not just talking about the theoretical "good guy with a gun" that's bandied about, often mockingly by the same crowd who would call for a ban on the AR. Statistics show citizens are responsible for justifiable homicides (specifically defined as the killing of a felon during the commission of a felony) in annual numbers not too far from the justifiable homicides attributed to police and even closer to, and sometimes exceeding, the number of murders committed with rifles.

We have a decision to make, and there are certainly changes that must be made. Perhaps the change that could most clearly address the issue of school/mass shootings is the expansion and deepening of background checks. But for those to be effective there needs to be enforcement of laws already on the books, investigation into tips like those we now know were made to the FBI and others about Cruz, as well as cooperation between the mental health/medical professionals and the authorities. 

We need to identify dangerous individuals and prevent them from acquiring firearms, full-stop. That is what will do the most to prevent future occurances like Parkland, Va. Tech, UT-Austin, Newtown, or any of the others. Every minute wasted focusing on banning or restricting the AR-15, or any individual weapon, does nothing to achieve that.

We have a common denominator to address with these terrifying events, and it is what's between the ears of the shooters, not what's in their hands.