A Round Per Second

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any pumpkins; they would have shown vividly the violence these guns could do. But we didn’t let that slight disappointment stop us. At a remote rifle range, we blasted away. Or, to be precise, I blasted away, as my two friends, a law enforcement officer and a military man, supervised my amateur gunsmanship.

I was here because I wanted to sort out what I thought about guns. The massacre in Killeen last October, when a man named George Hennard killed 23 people with a semi-automatic pistol, had the effect, almost against my will, of making guns and the horror they can cause a subject of interest, just as Scud missiles suddenly became interesting during the war with Iraq. I didn’t think individuals had any more business owning semiautomatic pistols than they did owning Scud missiles, but owning guns is a constitutional right. And in this 200th anniversary year of the Bill of Rights, I believed more strongly than ever in absolute freedom of speech, in trial by jury, in the free exercise of religion, in the right to confront witnesses in court, in the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, and, even after hearing many hoodlums take the Fifth, in the right not to have to testify against yourself. But did those convictions mean that I had to be an absolutist about the Second Amendment as well? Did supporting the Bill of Rights require that I believe that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” as strongly as I believed that there should be no law “abridging freedom of speech, or of the press”?

At the shooting range, my two friends explained with great care how each weapon worked and what its proper purpose was. I began with a Smith and Wesson .357, a standard police handgun for many years. It is a six-round revolver with a double-action trigger pull, which means that pulling the trigger first pushes the hammer back and then releases it. After loading .38-caliber bullets, I could fire six rounds fairly quickly with reasonable accuracy, although reloading took precious time. A .357 magnum bullet was so much more powerful that I couldn’t shoot it accurately. The kick broke a blood vessel at the base of my thumb. At night the flash from the explosion would have blinded me just as if a flashbulb had gone off in front of my eyes. Even policemen who, for reasons of their own, carry .357 rounds when on duty often don’t like to practice with them because of the toll the kick takes on the hands, arms, and nerves. These ferocious rounds are available in most gun shops.

Next, we loaded a 9mm Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol, a gun very like the Glock pistol that George Hennard used in Killeen. It is a sleek, black, aristocratic-looking weapon that feels very good in the hand. After the first shot, a slight touch on the trigger releases the hammer. With each succeeding shot, the mechanism ejects the spent shell, puts a new round in the chamber, and cocks the hammer again. The gun has very little kick, so bringing the sights back onto the target after a shot is easily done. The magazines come in two sizes, one that carries fifteen bullets and one that carries twenty. With two magazines and one shell already in the chamber, it’s no trick to shoot 36 acceptably accurate rounds in twenty to thirty seconds. Private citizens who feel they need to shoot 36 rounds in less than half a minute can buy a Sig from a gun shop for about $700.

Next was an assault rifle, a Heckler and Koch MP5. It is a compact, surprisingly light weapon that is common among SWAT teams throughout the Western world. It is accurate at one hundred yards or beyond but is best for close-range firing. Its clip carries thirty 9mm rounds, and the standard procedure in an assault is to carry one magazine in the gun and three in your belt. It has virtually no kick, and I was able to fire round after round downrange into a target rather resembling a human torso. The MP5, elegantly black and a marvel of design, materials, and engineering, is extremely useful in making arrests in dangerous circumstances. It has no use as a hunting weapon. Nor does it have much use in law enforcement outside the specific one mentioned above. Yet it is possible to buy this or a similar weapon from a registered dealer or, better still, at a gun show where there may be no record whatsoever of the transaction. We shot various other weapons. Despite the ominous overtones, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. And if I were certain that these weapons would always be used to keep good people safe and prevent bad people from doing harm, then it would be possible to look at guns with gratitude and almost with affection. And the typical politician’s opposition to gun control would make perfect sense.

But of course guns are not always used to help the good, as the Killeen massacre sadly proves. The shock from that tragedy has changed some minds, including that of Chet Edwards, the Democratic congressman from the area. He decided to vote for a bill to ban certain kinds of assault rifles. He is, he told me, “not generally a supporter of gun control. But the emotion of that incident caused me to think rationally and do what I think is right. I represent a district with a long history of gun ownership and the largest military base in the United States. But most people think assault rifles should be used in Fort Hood, not on the streets of Killeen.”

That this commonsense view should be the least bit controversial is evidence of how poisoned the public rhetoric about gun control really is. Ask most Texas politicians and you will hear, as I did when I called

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