This much most people agree on: Last week’s massacre in Newtown, Conn., was a tragic, incomprehensible act that demands a reasonable response to stop the killing.
Yet few can agree on that response.
Many gun rights advocates and owners worry that the response will be to tighten gun controls – and reinstitute a ban on assault rifles.
That would be the emotional reaction, not necessarily the right one, said Larry Hyatt, whose family has owned Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte since 1959.
“We don’t know what’s causing young men with mental health issues to do these monstrous things,” Hyatt said. “But each time it happens, people with anti-gun agendas want to demonize the guns.
“It’s not a simple fix. We don’t want a law passed under high emotions that takes away our freedom and still doesn’t give us security. That’s a bad trade.”
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, took enough ammunition into Sandy Hook Elementary that he could have killed every child in the school. Authorities say he primarily relied on a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, apparently owned legally by his mother.
The Newtown killings follow a mass shooting last July in a Colorado movie theater and one last year in Arizona that nearly killed former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Speaking in Newtown on Sunday, President Barack Obama said the country “will have to change” and promised to lead a national effort. He didn’t specify what that effort would be.
The shooting that killed 12 and wounded 50 in Colorado gave gun control supporters new reason to push for renewing a 1994 federal assault weapon ban that expired 10 years later. It banned 19 models of semiautomatic guns and restricted the amount of ammunition a magazine could hold.
Gail Neely, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said her group has called for reinstating the ban since it lapsed.
“These are the weapons of choice in situations (like the Connecticut and Colorado shootings),” Neely said. “If they’re not available, they’re not going to happen.”
But gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association argue that any form of gun control makes it hard for crime victims to defend themselves and that criminals would get guns illegally.
Some say the ban, while it was in effect, had little impact on reducing gun violence because it was riddled with loopholes.
“We had an assault weapon ban before and we had a magazine-capacity limit, and nothing changed,” said Scott Woller, owner of Beltway Gun and Pawn in Matthews. “The fact is that you’ve already got 300 million guns and a billion magazines out there.
“It’s almost unlegislatable.”
A complicated issue
Just restricting some guns or the amount of ammunition wouldn’t solve the problem, said Jim Pendergraph, former Mecklenburg sheriff and county commissioner.
The country, he said, needs a comprehensive approach that includes identifying and getting help for people with mental health issues.
“Our mental health system is broken,” Pendergraph said. “Everyone knows of individuals in communities who need help with those issues and is not getting it.”
Some media reports have said the Newtown shooter suffered from unspecified mental health problems.
Pendergraph said parents also need to start banning “violent video games” from their children.
Background checks required of gun buyers are working, he and Larry Hyatt say. People who buy rifles, or long guns, go through a federal check. Handgun buyers in North Carolina must get a permit through the sheriff’s office in their county.
The checks include criminal and mental health records, and military histories. Anyone with a dishonorable discharge from the military, or who has mental health, domestic violence or drug issues can’t be sold a gun.
Even with background checks, some people buy guns for others who’d be denied. And once guns leave the store, it’s difficult to restrict what happens to them.
“A year later, someone may break into a house and steal them,” Hyatt said. “Or the buyer sells it. Or he passes away and the guns go to a relative. After they leave a story, there’s not a lot of background stuff that goes on.”
Neely, of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said lawmakers need to expand background checks to all gun purchases, including those bought at gun shows and on the internet.
They also need to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, she said.
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