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The Newtown Tragedy: How should we respond?

The choice on weapons: Hobby vs. Horror

The .223-caliber Bushmaster is a semi-automatic, military-style rifle, available at retailers across the United States. The gun is sleek with a combat-ready appearance, say online reviewers, who also like that it’s “very accurate” and “fantastic to add to a collection or as a first rifle” and, most of all, is “a lot of fun.”

Fun? Yes, fun. Shooting guns is a hobby, same as a morning of tennis or afternoon of golf. The Bushmaster is like any other higher-end piece of equipment – it allows an enthusiast to be a little better at that hobby, or at least think so, same as that new titanium club you’ve had your eye on. But only one makes mass killing easy.

America is once again facing a question about guns, this time with younger faces and more profound grief demanding an answer: Is the fun of shooting a semi-automatic rifle as a hobby worth the carnage it can cause as a weapon?

We should ask ourselves that often this week, after every funeral of every little boy and little girl and adult who fell victim to a young man carrying that gun in Newtown, Conn. That’s 27 more questions, 27 more Americans killed, along with two at an Oregon shopping mall last week, a dozen at a Colorado movie theater in July. And of course, Columbine and Virginia Tech and others.

What connects them all is this: The shooters exhibited at least hints of mental illness, and the guns they used were capable of killing a lot of humans very quickly.

America should confront both issues. State and national legislators need to reverse the trend of cutting back on mental health funding, so that the mentally ill have a better chance of diagnosis and treatment. Congress also should improve the background check system for gun purchases and ban access to weapons and magazines that allow shooters to get off dozens of rounds in a minute.

Gun advocates already are pushing back against the latter, and this week will bring a flurry of contradictory statistics and anecdotes about the efficacy of gun control. You’ll hear, for example, how gun deaths dropped in Australia and the United Kingdom after mass killings prompted strict gun laws, but also how a decade-long U.S. ban on certain semi-automatic weapons had little impact on gun deaths in the years before it expired in 2004.

Both are true, and no one knows how well new U.S. restrictions on guns would work. The inventory of weapons with large magazines could take several years to deplete, even with robust buy-back programs. It’s likely, too, that some killers-to-be would simply find and purchase these weapons illegally. (We’d never know, however, if a killer decided against a rampage because he couldn’t find the assault rifle to pull it off.)

This much we do know: Mother Jones, a liberal news organization, has tracked 62 mass murders with firearms in the U.S. since 1982. A vast majority were committed with rapid-fire weapons, most of which were obtained legally.

Now we have perhaps the most heartbreaking mass killing of all – two classrooms of six- and seven-year-olds, along with teachers and staff, executed with up to 11 bullets each. It’s enough to prompt not only the promise of new gun control legislation this week from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, but an acknowledgment from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a conservative senator and NRA member who said Monday: “I don’t know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about.”

What might be lost from restricting access to these weapons? Not as much as gun advocates would have you believe. Hunters will still have guns to hunt. Homeowners will still have weapons for self-protection. Citizens will still have their Second Amendment rights – which, by the way, never said you can have every kind of weapon you want.

What will be lost, for some gun hobbyists, is fun. Their lives won’t change in any big way, but others’ lives might very well be saved. Isn’t that a trade worth making?

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