Legislators, ban assault rifles


When a demented, gun-obsessed young man killed 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut, that state’s legislature — not known as especially liberal — heard the outrage and passed a bill outlawing semi-automatic assault-style rifles and high capacity magazines. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld that law. Six other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws.

When a demented, gun-obsessed young man killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in Orlando, Florida’s governor and Legislature heard the outrage and decided to do . . . nothing. That’s right, not a blessed thing. This is outrageous, indefensible and unacceptable.

To their credit, in the wake of the Orlando massacre some Central Florida lawmakers called for a special session of the Legislature to consider new laws making it harder for a terrorist, sociopath, criminal or mentally ill person to buy guns in Florida. The lawmakers, all Democrats, want to close the loophole that now allows gun sales on the internet and at gun shows without a criminal background check or review of the buyer’s mental history.

Another possible change would require buyers of long guns, particularly assault-style weapons, to wait three days before getting them, as they now must for handguns. None of these are radical proposals. No one’s talking about taking away anyone’s guns.

The call for the special session sank without a trace. Not even bubbles on the placid surface of the political pool. The state Senate president, Andy Gardiner, lives in the Orlando area and works not far from Pulse, but was nowhere to be seen thereabouts in the days after. Guess he didn’t want to be asked what he and his fellow lawmakers would do to change our image as the “Gunshine State.”

The politician who was most visible soon after the shooting and its aftermath was Gov. Rick Scott. Normally diffident and emotionally distant, Scott showed admirable sympathy for the victims and their families, even if it took him a few days to publicly acknowledge that nearly all the victims were gay and that this was also a hate crime. But when a reporter for the New York Times asked Scott if the massacre showed that new gun laws are needed, he said: “The Second Amendment didn’t kill these people, evil killed these people.”

Whoa, a large philosophical notion from the governor who sometimes struggles with simple declarative sentences? At first blush, it looks that way. But let’s take a closer look and try to parse the governor’s words. Of course the Second Amendment didn’t kill anyone because it’s a precept, an idea, a statement of principle. As for evil, yes, it exists, but it requires an agent (“No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams). In this case the agent was Omar Mateen, but to act he needed a very powerful and lethal gun.

So what the governor is really saying is that a slaughter of this magnitude is awful, but passing a bunch of strict new gun laws won’t make it better or prevent something similar in the future because all the gun laws in the world can’t stop an evil-doer. Or to put it more crassly: from my cold, dead hands.

Contrast that with what Connecticut politicians said after Newtown: We deplore this senseless and terrible loss of life, especially 20 innocent children, and we will henceforth make it illegal for anyone to buy the kind of weapon the killer used, i.e. an assault rifle. What’s wrong with our lawmakers that they can’t say the same?

I agree with the governor that someone with evil intent and a twisted psyche killed those people at Pulse. But to do it he needed a Sig Sauer MCX, a knock-off of the military M16. Even in semi-automatic mode this gun can fire a torrent of bullets in a matter of seconds. One witness recorded 24 shots fired in a mere nine seconds. Mateen could legally buy and possess that weapon because national and state laws are too lax.

Mateen had been investigated twice by the FBI for jihadist threats, but had no criminal record or mental-health history and already had a Florida gun license. Thus he was able to walk out of a gun shop in Port St. Lucie with his assault rifle on the same day. And this was a guy who had been on a terror watch list for 10 months.

On Monday, Congress tried to prevent such gun sales, but failed. Tallahassee could succeed where Washington failed.

The state could ban the sale of assault rifles if we had leadership that wasn’t beholden to the NRA and enamored of the cult of gun ownership. They certainly aren’t listening to the people of Florida who, according to the polls, overwhelmingly want to get assault rifles out of civilian hands. Certainly out of the hands of killers like Mateen.

Normally I don’t care for single-issue voters, people who seize upon one issue — abortion, the environment, education, etc. — and make it their sole litmus test for a candidate. Orlando has changed my thinking. Forty-nine of our fellow citizens — our brothers and sons, wives and daughters — are dead. Banning assault rifles will neither bring them back nor guarantee an end to such massacres. But we can honor the victims’ memories and take a reasonable step toward sanity by banning assault weapons in Florida.

To be sure, there’d still be AR-15s around — the Wall Street Journal says there are 10 million of them in the country — but the ones still out there would be more expensive and harder to get. AR-15 aficionados could still fire them at ranges, but the Omar Mateens of this world couldn’t get them legally to commit murder.

To do nothing, as Gov. Scott proposes with mock profundity, is simply immoral.