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After Nashville, Action on Assault-Style Weapons?

Mass shootings are happening with a frequency that numbs, but Republicans are working to loosen, not tighten, gun restrictions.
April 3, 2023
After Nashville, Action on Assault-Style Weapons?
A view of gun used by the heavily armed shooter, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, a former student of the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, United States on March 27, 2023. 3 children, 3 teachers fatally shot in Nashville school shooting. The heavily armed shooter was killed during a shootout with a five-member police team on the second floor of the private Christian elementary school, authorities said. (Photo by Metropolitan Nashville PD/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the funerals began on Friday for the victims of last week’s shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, three 9-year-olds and three adults, I remembered a moment in Beto O’Rourke’s otherwise forgettable 2020 presidential campaign. It was when, at a Democratic debate in Houston in September 2019, O’Rourke blurted out: “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

A few weeks earlier, on August 5, a shooter targeting Latinos had used an AK-47 to kill 23 people at a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso. The former Texas congressman said soon afterward that owners of assault-style weapons would “have to sell them to the government.” Which led the debate moderator to ask: “Are you proposing taking away their guns?”

“I am,” O’Rourke replied, “if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield, if the high-impact, high-velocity round when it hits your body shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield, not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers. When we see that being used against children . . .” He described a mother watching her 15-year-old bleed to death in the Walmart parking lot because there were too many wounded to help everyone, and finished: “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

Those weapons of war are still very much in use against our fellow Americans. The shooter in Nashville last week was armed with an AR-15, as well as a semiautomatic carbine rifle and a handgun, all legally purchased.

O’Rourke’s White House bid went nowhere and during his run for Texas governor last year he backed off his mandatory buyback proposal. But it’s worth asking after this latest mass shooting, and every mass shooting, why what he proposed hasn’t happened in the United States. Especially since mass shootings in other countries—including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—prompted quick adoption of bans on assault-style weapons, buybacks, registration, and other restrictions that have dramatically reduced gun violence. Why not here?

No civilian needs to own semiautomatic assault-style weapons, and they’re so dangerous for cops that bans have support from groups like the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. And yet, as I wrote of gun rights zealots in 2014, “I’m not sure they’d budge even if the Founding Fathers personally assured them that they were good with expanded background checks and bans on certain types of weapons and magazines.”

At least back then, lawmakers didn’t wear AR-15 lapel pins or send Christmas cards of their families (including their kids) posing with guns. This is a fetish that only gets worse, not better.

The Second Amendment seems pretty harmless when you read it devoid of context: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But since America’s early days it has evolved into a nightmare of murder, trauma, and extreme politics. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens (a Gerald Ford appointee) wrote in a 2018 op-ed that the amendment is “a relic of the 18th century” and should be repealed.

Stevens wasn’t the only justice nominated by a Republican who wanted the Second Amendment to disappear. Chief Justice Warren Burger, a 1969 Richard Nixon appointee who retired in 1986 and died in 1995, was a conservative, a hunter, and a gun owner—but he told PBS in December 1991 that “If I were writing the Bill of Rights now, there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Second Amendment. . . . This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word fraud—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

He added, “If the militia, which was going to be the state army, was going to be well regulated, why shouldn’t 16 and 17 and 18 or any other aged persons be regulated in the use of arms the way an automobile is regulated?”

Burger did not mellow with (even more) age. In an April 1993 interview with Sen. Paul Simon (D-Illinois), at a conference in Nebraska, Burger said National Rifle Association officials “have trained themselves and their people to lie” and added that as an American citizen, he was outraged by the NRA’s “pernicious influence and conduct.” He also declared: “The notion that registering gun purchases somehow violates the Constitution is unmitigated nonsense.”

Even the late Justice Antonin Scalia (a Ronald Reagan appointee) wrote in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” President Joe Biden channeled both Scalia and Burger when he said last week, “There’s nothing absolute about any amendment. And this is ridiculous. And it’s all about money—big, big, big money.”

What makes the situation especially absurd is that—as millions of Americans under the age of, say, 30 are too young to remember—the United States actually had a ban on assault-style weapons, and not that long ago. Biden, when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, guided it to passage in 1994. It was allowed to expire in 2004, when George W. Bush was president, despite Biden’s fight to renew it. He kept pushing for it as a 2020 presidential candidate and made the same plea after the Nashville shooting. “I have gone the full extent of my executive authority to do, on my own, anything about guns,” Biden said. “The Congress has to act. . . . I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”

At least theoretically, the Nashville shooting has the makings of an inflection point.

Consider that Ashbey Beasley of Highland Park, Illinois, a mother-turned-activist who survived the July Fourth parade shooting last year with her 6-year-old, happened to be* visiting relatives in Nashville last week. She planned to lunch with an activist friend whose older son was killed in Nashville’s last big mass shooting, five years ago at a Waffle House in nearby Antioch. Instead her friend called in a panic because her younger son’s school—near Covenant—was on lockdown. “I couldn’t even fully process it,” Beasley told the Washington Post.

Also consider that two of the adults killed at Covenant used to teach at a school with Maria Lee, wife of the state’s Republican governor. One of them, Cindy Peak, “was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher” at Covenant, Gov. Bill Lee said in a video the day after the shooting. “Cindy and Maria and Katherine Koonce were all teachers at the same school and had been family friends for decades.”

But Tennessee has some of the laxest gun laws in the country, including permitless carry, and is continuing to remove restrictions, lower age limits and expand opportunities to carry all kinds of weapons, openly or concealed. Concerned state law enforcement officials recently argued against some of this, the Tennessean reported, but supporters countered that there is “a constitutional right to bear any arms” and their state had too many limitations.

Lee carefully noted that “prayer is the first thing we should do, but it’s not the only thing.” But he also, maddeningly, framed gun violence as a battle against “evil itself.”

No, it’s a battle against several hundred million civilian-owned guns circulating in the United States as restrictions and safeguards erode; inflammatory speech that inspires self-styled anti-government militias, threats, and attacks; the assumption that everyone’s mental health can be controlled, tracked, or predicted; the shootings and death that kill, scar, and haunt ever more Americans; and the legislatures and courts that keep trying, often successfully, to make it easier to buy guns meant for the battlefield, often with no training or permit, and carry them in a widening variety of public spaces.

If single-minded gun rights expansionists in Tennessee or anywhere else think this trend is impressive or reassuring, or that owning multiple dangerous weapons makes them more of a man, they’re wrong. It’s terrifying.

What’s even more terrifying is this: We’ve seen the GOP sleepwalk into the Trump era, with its armed militias and violent protests. We’re now watching as, state by state and ruling by ruling, the party drifts deeper into gun worship and absolutism. We know there will be no happy endings, just more tragedy. And Republican leaders, as usual, are standing by and letting it happen.

* This startling coincidence—in which the survivor of one mass shooting happens to be near the site of a later one, illustrating their terrible frequency in America—is reminiscent of another such grim incident from earlier this year: At least one of the students at Michigan State University during the mass shooting there this past February (3 dead, 5 injured) had been a senior at Oxford High School outside Detroit during the 2021 shooting there (4 dead, 7 injured).

Jill Lawrence

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: Twitter: @JillDLawrence.