So-Called 'Assault Weapon' Ban is Unconstitutional Political Grandstanding
America has tragically suffered many unspeakable acts of violence in recent years. Heart-wrenching mass shootings have become a seemingly regular occurrence in our society and, in the immediate wake of each terrible event, the mainstream media and politicians rush to politicize the narrative in an almost predictable fashion.
Long before getting involved in politics and coming to Congress, I was a pastor for many years, and I view these events through the lens of my faith. I believe these acts of violence are symptoms of a deep moral crisis in America. How did Americans massacring other Americans become almost commonplace? How did it come to this?
Finding the answers to those questions requires a thoughtful, open and well-informed debate that must involve the entire country—not just a few politicians and media talking heads in Washington. To truly tackle the issues of mass violence in our society, we need to first examine the facts.
Many of the policy proposals given attention following mass shootings are more problematic and less effective than their supporters claim. Gun violence in America is complex—and so are the real solutions. Let's look at what some folks call an "assault weapons" ban.
First things first: There's no such thing as an "assault weapon." This is an emotionally charged, subjective buzzword invented by politicians and the media. What this term typically refers to is an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. The "AR" stands for "ArmaLite rifle"—named after the company that developed the platform in the 1950s. Contrary to media misrepresentation, it is not a fully automatic machine gun—these types of weapons have been severely restricted by law for nearly a century. The AR-15 is easy to use, maintain and customize, and is considered the most popular rifle in the country. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that over 16 million AR-15-type rifles are owned by Americans. Even if you banned the new purchase of these rifles, we would still have millions of them out there.
While they are very commonly owned, semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 are rarely used to commit violent crimes. In fact, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, only around three percent of firearm homicides were committed with rifles of any type in 2018. The data show that handguns are far more likely to be used in crimes, including mass shootings. If you examine the database of all mass shootings maintained by Mother Jones dating back to the 1980s, handguns are used more frequently and are responsible for more deaths than are AR-15-style rifles.
Furthermore, a ban on "assault rifles" simply fails to have the big impact that its supporters attribute to it. According to national crime data, violent crime peaked in the early 1990s. The "assault weapons" ban was enacted in 1994 and expired 10 years later—a decade during which violent crime significantly decreased. But violent crime has continued to steadily drop even since the ban expired, all while Americans have continued to purchase more and more firearms. A 2018 study by the RAND Corporation looked at all available research on gun violence and found that "available evidence is inconclusive for the effect of assault weapon bans on total homicides and firearm homicides."
Last but certainly not least, the Second Amendment clearly protects an American's fundamental right to own firearms—and I believe it is clear the Constitution extends that protection to AR-15-style rifles. In the landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court struck down the D.C. ban on handguns, holding that firearms "in common use" for defensive purposes are protected under the Constitution. In the midst of the riots and unrest that have swept the nation this year, Americans are now purchasing firearms at record numbers. Many are doing so for the first time—and they have every right to do so to protect themselves. Given the huge numbers of AR-15-style rifles and their popularity for home and personal defense, it is clear to me that the Second Amendment protects AR-15-style rifles. While some states, such as California and New Jersey, currently have bans on "assault weapons," I believe these are plainly unconstitutional.
When considering how to tackle mass shootings, we need to dig down to the root cause. Firearms are tools and, as with all tools, it is the operator who counts the most. We need to stop mass shootings by preventing them from happening in the first place—and that means we must look at the shooter.
Mass shooters are almost exclusively male, and a startling number come from troubled upbringings. A study by Dr. Peter Langman, considered an expert on school violence, found that 82 percent of shooters he examined grew up in unstable or dysfunctional homes. We know that fatherless children are more likely to drop out of school, run away from home, abuse drugs and alcohol, commit suicide, and—yes—perpetrate gun violence. The link between mass violence and family structures, especially fatherhood, is often ignored entirely.
When I said that I believe there is a deep moral crisis in America, that wasn't just my faith talking. It's the facts. An "assault weapons" ban is a political agenda—not a real solution to gun violence. There are many other policies that have significantly more merit—like beefing up school security—that should be considered. To truly end the plague of mass shootings in America, however, we must address the root causes of what drives a person to pick up a firearm with violence in his heart. That's where the solution begins and ends.
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