Assault Rifles in American Society -- a Time to Revisit the Relationship

12/17/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2013

Friday's massacre of twenty children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, has re-charged the highly emotive debate on Gun Law from both sides of the aisle. As you would expect -- there are those on the right calling for teachers to now be armed, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) believes that "the mass slaughter would have gone differently if Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung had been armed." Then there are those on the left who advocate the polar opposite; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) "said Sunday that she plans to introduce an assault weapons ban bill on the first day of the new Congress." Some also cite mental illness and the lack of access to good mental health care as the main factor in the Sandy Hook killings. Respecting the collective and individual rights of the second amendment should also recognize proportionate and rational means in exercising the right to bear arms. Debates centering on whether (or not) assault rifles have a place within a civilian context should not be presupposed by partisan dogma. This is not the time for compartmentalized political arguments (a la fiscal cliff) but a very real opportunity, created by a tragic set of circumstances, to reflect on the relationship that assault weapons have with American society.

As a British veteran of twenty years and with over ten operational tours of duty spanning Northern Ireland, Macedonia, Bosnia, and three tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo -- the assault rifle has provided me with personal protection and security for over two decades. On operations, the assault rifle is your protective blanket, it is your most important possession and it does not leave your sight. You train, fight, eat and sleep with this weapon. It is the soldier's holy grail -- it is not the business of day-to-day citizens let alone a mother bringing up children in a family environment.

Security landscapes that justify assault rifles reside within power vacuums; countries where civil law and order is broken, where police and security forces are dysfunctional or cease to exist for the protection of society; where asymmetric and irregular warfare is being prosecuted by militias and terrorists on a daily basis and where we, as the occupying forces, frequently find ourselves in the crosshairs of an insurgents rifle. These semi-automatic weapons are designed to enable soldiers and law enforcement personnel to deliver a magazine of ammunition (around thirty bullets) onto a target with precision and lethal effect. This is not America or other parts of the Western civilized world -- these are conflicts and contexts that I would wish upon no decent human being. A man was arrested yesterday in Indiana for owning 47 guns and ammunition and demonstrating threatening behavior towards an elementary school. Why does a member of society in a civilized country require such an armory of weapons?

Pulling the trigger on an assault rifle is but the last action of a long chain of events and regulation for a soldier. Health and sanity checks are completed on new recruits well before they are permitted anywhere near a weapon -- loaded or not. That is not to say later down the road some may fall victim to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or become psychologically damaged due to combat experience. We rely on the esprit de corps and close relationships developed within military units to identify behavior that maybe impair future judgment amongst our brothers in arms -- not fail safe -- but amelioration to some extent. Many hours are spent training on 'dry' weapons involving no ammunition; dismantling the weapon hundreds of times and rebuilding it; cleaning and learning the function of all its components; being professionally educated in the rules of engagement and conflict; understanding ballistic theory and the devastating lethal effects that a high velocity round has on flesh and bone -- then maintaining this level of expertise throughout your service life. Then there is the firing range, and many hours spent honing marksmanship, learning the 'combat pause', dealing with malfunctions and stoppages and refining safety procedures. All it takes is for one negligent discharge to be pointing in the wrong direction and the consequences are deadly -- no one wants to be the perpetrator of a blue-on-blue. Such intense training and education, paralleled with close relationships only brought about by battle and mission experience, should not be expected of civil society, but then owning and operating assault rifles outside of high threat environments, law enforcement agencies and the military, shouldn't be expected either.

And once the training has ensured the necessary preparedness, the assault rifles and unexpended ammunition are carefully accounted for and returned to the armory, a secure building that is usually manned twenty four hours a day by experienced individuals, monitored by close circuit television and encompassing at least two layers of safety procedure required to access weapons. If such security requirements to keep semi-automatic weapons are deemed necessary by the military and law enforcement agencies, why have the same standards not been applied to civil society?

The right to bear arms should not be forgotten at this juncture. The second amendment stating: "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" was adopted on December 15, 1791. America has armed herself successfully to ensure its security as a free state and in the twenty first century, boasts the most "well regulated militia" in the world, with an exemplary record in protecting its citizens and homeland. Collectively, assault rifles are an appropriate and necessary weapon for the military and law enforcement agencies to exercise and uphold the second amendment with conviction and effect. The right to bear arms as a general matter is part of the fabric of American culture. In addition, it would be impossible to completely disarm and demobilize those individuals seeking to exercise that right. Collective versus individual rights remain the focal debate and both should be acknowledged and respected but at the same time, proportionality should be applied. Individuals in the US do not exist in a security vacuum; it is therefore unreasonable and disproportionate to argue that a semi-automatic weapon is required for domestic self-defense.

I have a brother who suffers from severe learning disability or what used to be labeled 'mentally handicapped.' He is a very vulnerable boy but would not know what a semi-assault rifle is, let alone what to do with one. There is still a stigma in Western society, even today, about confronting those that do not fit into the norms associated with accepted behavior. We all have our part to play in affording these vulnerable individuals a little of our time and support - especially when they are at a young and influential age. Those with aggressive or potentially threatening tendencies should be nurtured and cared for by society. More importantly, the families that best understand and identify the changes of behavior, like soldiers that form closely developed relationships with their brothers in arms, need to have access to education and medication as preventative notion, not a cure. Mental health is not just an issue for the government; we are all responsible for increasing our own awareness and compassion for those vulnerable members of our society less fortunate than ourselves. The answer does not reside in arming our teachers with semi-automatic rifles and training them to be lethal marksman. It would, however, be sensible to increase the restrictions on access to assault rifles with immediate effect, whilst a plan to remove these weapons from civil society was hatched.

There is an unfortunate requirement to operate assault rifles as a measure of personal security in certain locations around the globe. High threat landscapes that house enemies with ideologies that do not respect human or civil rights qualify for such extreme measures -- schools, cinemas or other public facilities in civilized countries do not. Assault rifles demand highly tuned and experienced operators educated in all facets of semi-automatic weapons. Soldiers and law enforcement personnel qualify -- mothers, fathers, hunters and every member of domestic civil society do not. Moreover, access to existing semi-automatic weapons should encompass stringent measures with layered security procedures to ensure breeches in public safety are minimized. Revisiting aspects of gun ownership should not be divisive or politically charged. Continued debate should exist when massacres are still occurring and children cannot learn in schools without fear of being gunned down. From experience, disarming and demobilizing a population or militia is complex and requires time, significant resource and careful policing. Arming public servants with semi-automatic weapons is not the answer, and the aspiration to improve support for those vulnerable members of our society should be disconnected from debates on gun law. In the short term, significantly improved security regulation constraining easy access to assault rifles that already exist amongst American society should be implemented. In the long term -- I hope that common sense will prevail and individuals that exercise the right to bear arms can do so without resorting to the use of semi-automatic weapons.