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 the office of East Texas congressman Charles Wilson, “The congressman is totally opposed to any form of gun control.” But those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Is he for felons being allowed to own guns? Well, no. What about children? Should ten-year-old kids be allowed to buy guns? No. So Wilson is in favor of some forms of gun control. But he cannot say, “I am in favor of gun control under certain circumstances”—an accurate statement of his position—because that would be taken to mean that he favors a ban on handguns or something similar. The National Rifle Association would level its forces against him. It’s just simpler to stick by the code phrase “totally opposed to all forms of gun control.” Thus what goes on in Congress is not political debate about gun control but simple posturing.
Having said that, I have also to say that if asked a question about free speech, I might very well reply, “I am totally opposed to all forms of censorship.” And I am. But that statement doesn’t quite mean what it says either. There ought to be, and there are, sanctions against publishing fraudulent statements to get money or knowingly publishing falsehoods. The government has certain information—for instance, the exact workings of nuclear weapons, the deployment of troops in wartime, the proceedings of grand juries—that it can rightfully suppress. Free speech does not allow violating a copyright. And there are several other examples of speech that I would say should be prohibited, including shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Though the language of the First Amendment is absolute, there is nevertheless, between suppression of all speech and no suppression whatsoever, a point that divides what is allowed and what is not. The Constitution insists that that point be as close as possible to no suppression and as far as possible from total suppression. We have the right to decide for ourselves—but for no one else—which political commentary is persuasive and which is not, which nude is art and which is something else, which song lyrics are acceptable and which are not, and even whether we want to read or see or hear anything at all.
Similarly, somewhere between water guns and atomic weapons, there is a point that divides what is allowed in private hands and what is not. The language of the Second Amendment about owning firearms is as absolute as the language in the First Amendment about free speech. But I don’t think that means that the point that divides what we allow and what we don’t should be as close to atomic weapons as possible. The difference is that words in the mouth of a madman are an annoyance, but a gun in the hands of a madman is death for anyone within range. It is both good public policy and consistent with the Constitution to try to keep the point determining what is allowed from moving any closer to atomic weapons than it already has.
Opposing handguns is not the answer. They cannot be banned. Enforced background checks or waiting periods before allowing someone to buy a handgun might do some good but very little. There are already 35 million handguns in private ownership in the United States. It would be impossible to round them up even if that were constitutional, which it isn’t. With that many pistols out there, it means that lots of bad people have them and intend to use them; so it isn’t irrational for good people to want handguns too, just in case.
But traffic in assault weapons is a relatively new phenomenon. There aren’t yet that many assault rifles in private hands. Neither are there that many extended magazines that hold twenty or thirty or even more rounds. It is still possible to restrict such weapons before they proliferate so widely that the public will want to buy them just to keep up. Even licensing them to the degree that we license automobiles would help. Shouldn’t the Killeen massacre change more minds than just Chet Edwards’?