A Proven Way to End the Gun Slaughter: Will We Fight For it?

12/26/2012 09:24 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2013

This is the third installment in a series by Douglas Anthony Cooper dealing with gun control and the Newtown Massacre. Part One, "This is What You Take to a Gun Fight" is here. Part Two, "Walking in the Shoes of Our Slain Children" is here.

Let's do what doesn't work. That way we'll feel like adults, as our loved ones are massacred. The "middle ground,"' in particular, is the place to stand if you care more about guns than children.

We know what does work. Truly responsible hunters and target shooters will endorse it, but a certain demographic will howl. Of course, nobody has the guts to propose it, and nobody imagines that it has any hope of being implemented. So let's examine the meaty, toothless options.

A ban on assault weapons sure sounds potent. It wouldn't have made much of a difference in Columbine or Newtown (if any), but let's put a fantastic amount of energy into it, so that we can say that we really did try to end the slaughter of the innocent.

Shall we talk specifically about what we won't be banning?

Only one assault weapon was used at Columbine: it was a gun carried by Dylan Klebold, the depressive, as opposed to Eric Harris, the psychopath. Eric's primary weapon was the sort that no proposed ban will get anywhere near.

Dylan's main weapon was in fact banned, finally: a semi-automatic pistol, the TEC-DC9. This is an ugly gun, with an ugly history:

"The Intratec TEC DC-9 'assault pistol,' also known as DC-9, TEC-9, or, if manufactured after 1994, as AB-10, bears the dubious distinction of being one of the most widely used 'criminal' guns in (the) USA. It was used in several mass murder cases, as well as an unknown, but definitely large number of street fights and other violent crimes. TEC-9 became 'famous' for its 'evil' appearance, large magazine capacity (which offered significant firepower), and for (its) low price. Unsurprisingly, these features made TEC-9 very popular among various marginal types. For any serious or professional shooter this gun was of little value."

Nobody sane is suggesting that this gun not be prohibited. I do not intend to propose that because banning the ugliest guns does not work, we should therefore ban none of them. This line of thinking is embraced by only two groups, who have little else in common: defeatists and thugs. Chief spokesman for the latter, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, stressed this week that his organization retains complete faith in this non-approach to the issue.

Of course you ban assault weapons. Of course you'd be foolish to permit high-capacity magazines on the streets. I simply intend to demonstrate that you'd be foolish to stop there. It's a first step, but it's a specific kind of first step: the sort that's thoroughly useless if you don't take the second and third.

Hence it's crucial to discuss the weapons that weren't banned.

Both boys were carrying shotguns. They didn't use them much. Eric's was a pump-action shotgun, however, and he managed to get off twice as many rounds with it than Dylan with his slower double-barreled weapon. Here's what's special about a pump-action gun. The Art of Manliness website explains:

"The general consensus in the firearms community is that pump-action shotguns are the top choice for home defense. They're relatively easy to use, nearly impossible to break, and are super reliable. More importantly, the sound of chambering a hot round into a pump-action 12 gauge is sure to soil the britches of even the most hardened criminal. As an added bonus, they're relatively cheap, with prices beginning around $200."

They're slower than semiautomatic shotguns, but much less likely to jam. In other words: they are in some ways more useful than many often-banned weapons, if you intend to shoot a huge number of people, quickly.

Note that Eric and Dylan -- although they were not in fact goths as reported -- did have a truly sinister aesthetic sensibility: They chose a type of weapon famous for looking exceptionally ugly (the TEC-DC9), and another famous for sounding exceptionally ugly (the pump-action shotgun). Gun aficionados know that these weapons involve levels of cruelty, some of them not widely understood outside of that world. Terror is what you induce before death.

At any rate, neither boy relied much on his shotgun. Eric, the psychopath, used a cheap Hi-Point Model 995 carbine rifle as his primary killing device. Here's where the irony should begin to sicken you. The Hi-Point not only wasn't banned, but it was developed during the ban: it was specifically designed to accord with the new law. We'll encounter a variant of this all-too-common irony in Newtown. Eric's rifle, at the time of Columbine (mid-ban), was restricted to a 10-round magazine. Only after the ban was lifted in 2004, were 15-round magazines available for this model.

As I say, of course we require a ban on high-capacity magazines. It's simply important to know what we won't catch in that net. These magazines are "variously defined as those holding more than 10, 15, or 20 rounds." Which is to say, the term does not describe the magazines used by Eric Harris at Columbine.

Clayton E. Cramer, who teaches at the College of Western Idaho and has studied this, puts it bluntly:

"To replace an empty magazine with a fully loaded one typically takes one to two seconds, even under stressful conditions... How much actual 'advantage' does a high-capacity magazine give to a monster who is shooting unarmed people? Practically none."

The New York Times reports statistics that come to the same conclusion:

"The federal ban also yielded mixed results in its decade of existence. A 2004 study by the University of Pennsylvania, financed by the Justice Department, found that the measure, which included a ban on ammunition magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds, had only a limited impact on gun crime."

Dylan, with his less violent nature, had the aforementioned TEC-DC9, which I've also discussed here. The TEC-DC9 is significant for the same reason as the Hi-Point. It represents a kind of gun that we're guaranteed to encounter again, when we fail to produce adequate gun laws: a grotesque weapon inspired by a ban on weapons.

In particular, the TEC-DC9 was born as a result of California's ban on an earlier version, the TEC-9, after the Cleveland School Massacre in 1989. The new weapon -- and we'll encounter this too, again and again -- was named for the ban. "DC" means "Designed for California."

This weapon, in its new form, was banned again, with predictable consequences (including a new name, inspired by the new ban):

"The 1994 crime bill banned the TEC-9 and the TEC-DC9 by name. But, following enactment of the ban, Intratec retooled its product line to follow the letter, but certainly not the spirit, of the law. The company began producing the AB-10, a slightly modified version of the TEC-DC9 that was technically legal under the law (AB stands for 'after ban'). Intratec sells the gun with a pre-ban 32-round ammunition magazine despite the fact that production of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds was also banned in 1994. At the same time the company began marketing a new line of Saturday Night Special handguns, or 'junk guns,' promising its customers, 'The Legend Continues... '"

And continues. And continues. This kind of cleverness is the reason that the Newport massacre would have been effortless, even if the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban hadn't expired during the gun-positive Bush administration. We'll get to that in a moment.

Intratec, the company that produced the TEC-DC9, marketed this weapon with emphasis on its "high fire-power, a threaded barrel for the easy attachment of a silencer, and the gun's 'excellent resistance to fingerprints.'"

In short: it marketed this weapon to murderers.

Note that Eric, with his inferior weaponry, fired nearly twice as many shots as Dylan. Dave Cullen, who has studied this for a decade, points out that this may have been psychological: "This suggests Dylan was slow to get fully involved. But once they were inside, it got much closer to even, with Eric firing just 20 percent more." Eric still managed to be more efficient, however, with an unbannable weapon.

Newtown is in some ways more pertinent, when we discuss precisely what the proposed ban won't accomplish. It says something about the well-meaning ignorance of legislators, and the malignant cunning of gun-lovers.

Adam Lanza's mother had a legally registered Bushmaster AR-15 type. We've heard different reports regarding the precise model, but we have a pretty good idea what kind of weapon it was. His mother's was a variant of Michele Bachmann's favorite. She too loves the AR-15: "That is a great gun."

George Zornick in The Nation just published an informative piece: "How Walmart Helped Make the Newtown Shooter's AR-15 the Most Popular Assault Weapon in America." He explains:

The model is familiar to many Walmart shoppers. It's on sale at about 1,700 Walmart stores nationwide, though the retail chain pulled the weapon from its website three days after the attack... Executive vice president Duncan Mac Naughton told shareholders at a meeting in October 2012 that gun sales in particular are a staple of the chain's strategy to continue boosting its numbers.

For the moment I'll assume that Lanza's version of this ubiquitous weapon was a Bushmaster M4 Type Carbine, as was reported on Slate, because that illustrates -- again -- the despair in store for us when we finally achieve another assault weapons ban.

The M4 legally available to the public is a semi-automatic version of a weapon used by the military (where it's fully automatic). And, yes, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban gave rise to a special model of this gun, named for the ban itself: the "M4 Type Post-Ban Carbine." It will be interesting to find out whether the version purchased by Adam Lanza's mother was this one, or perhaps the one made after the ban expired (post-Post-Ban). Not all that interesting, in that the difference between the banned version and the unbanned version was completely trivial. Some have described it as "cosmetic." In order to be rendered something other than an assault weapon, the M4 had to be deprived of such details as bayonet lugs.

There is no question -- none -- that Adam Lanza could have murdered those children with a banned version of the M4.

Hence, when we find out which version he used, we will have found out very little, except that a return to the hard-won Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 will do nothing to keep your children safer.

I have noted that I am not a defeatist. By no means have I come to the conclusion that gun legislation is ineffective. I am simply demonstrating that the kind of legislation being discussed is pure folly, or worse: utterly cynical. The "middle ground" is simply another name for the killing fields.

We do, however, know what works. We know this for the simple reason that it has been tried, with staggering success. We'll call this the Australian Model. Now, there are those who argue that America is a unique nation, given its brutal history. The story of western expansion -- which gave us that uniquely American genre, the Western -- is a story inextricable from guns. This argument suggests that violence is somehow woven into the American DNA, in a way that it simply isn't elsewhere.

Yes, America had a rough past, featuring some pretty hard men. Unlike Australia, which was founded as a prison colony.

What will work -- and it will require a seismic shift in the American psyche, of the sort rarely experienced in history -- is the uncompromising policy described below. I have quoted this anonymous statement before, in hopes that it would go viral, and it is getting close to doing just that. So let me quote it again. Unless we wish to be conquered by despair, this is what America simply must do:

"From 1984 to 1996, Australia had over a dozen mass murders by firearms, largely copycat killings prompted by media coverage in the U.S. and in Australia. Unstable people do insane things. After one lone nut gunman killed 35 and wounded 21 people in 1996, the Port Arthur Massacre, Prime Minister John Howard banned all semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns because of the outrage felt by Australian citizens. He introduced highly restrictive gun licensing laws. Hundreds of thousands of guns were purchased from Australian citizens and destroyed.

Do you know how many mass shootings we have had since then? Not one. In addition, firearm homicides have dropped 59% with no corresponding increase in non-firearm murders.

People kill people, not guns? Rubbish. Guns give the mentally ill ruthlessly efficient killing power, and escalate domestic violence from assault to homicide. The U.S. needs to act now, and the gun lobby needs to wake up to its culpability."

You do not partially treat an aggressive cancer.

Still, please note what did not happen in Australia: Hunters and target shooters were not forced to take up knitting. Their guns were not confiscated, and their activities were not rendered illegal. They do have to jump through a few more hoops than mass killers at gun shows in the United States. A "Permit to Acquire" is necessary, and the first time a civilian purchases a gun, this calls for a 28-day delay. Hence, potential suicides cannot make spur-of-the-moment purchases, nor can angry citizens who otherwise might not commit homicide.

A gun owner is required to have a secure place to store the weapon. After the Sandy Hook massacre, is it really possible to regard this as a bad idea?

Only a couple of aspects of the Australian Model would legitimately outrage a predictable group. The ban would be retroactive. Citizens would then have to specify why they wish to keep or purchase an unbanned gun. Sufficient reasons would include hunting, pest control, and target shooting. Insufficient reasons would include, notably, "self defense." Anyone with a demented understanding of the Constitution would be outraged by this, and you ought to welcome their outrage. They are a menace.

On the other hand, responsible target shooters and hunters are not a danger to your children. Moreover, many of these Americans -- who understand guns in a practical (but not paranoid) way -- are very much in favor of gun control. The Australian Model would not really affect their lives much. It would involve a bit more paperwork; they'd have to forgo weapons favored by mercenaries; and they'd have to demonstrate that they lived this side of psychosis. The law would now require them to lock up their guns intelligently, so that their children did not shoot other children.

Certain overlapping sectors of society would be truly affected: the suspiciously manly, the conspiratorial, and the deeply unhinged, as well as the lobbies that keep them on edge and the dealers that keep them supplied. Companies that specialize in semiautomatics and pump-action shot guns would have to revise their product lines. The NRA would suffer, or it would change. Most likely it would suffer.

This is all hypothetical, of course, because the chances of America adopting anything like the Australian Model are depressingly faint. Nobody has the stomach for the battle that this would involve: It would take the kind of principled courage we associate with wars that are actually won.

The words "courage" and "honor" have been redefined, unfortunately, and are now owned wholly by people who feel intimidated if they're without semi-automatics to defend themselves. Who feel it's important to go hunting with weaponry appropriate to SEAL Team Six, because that's the only way they're fully assured of taking down a deer. Until these words are reoccupied by the American people, illiterate constitutional scholars who purchase "courage" and "honor" at barely-regulated gun shows will continue to achieve a compromise -- which is to say, win -- and children will continue to die.

An earlier version of this post used a different quotation from The Nation. It has been replaced with one that more accurately represents the article.