George Mitchell, a former Democratic senator from Maine, recently published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe entitled “Banning assault weapons is effective – and not all that complicated.”
While I am sure that his intentions were well grounded, Mitchell’s article was highly ineffective – and very convoluted.
The Mantle of Moral Leadership
Mitchell begins his piece by heaping praise upon the students in Parkland who endured the horrific school shooting that recently took place in Florida:
… we’re seeing leadership and persistence by the brave high school students who survived the shooting in Parkland, Fla. These young men and women have boldly assumed the mantle of moral leadership. Just days after burying their friends and teachers, they are demanding that lawmakers, at the state and national levels, take action to reduce the likelihood of another mass shooting.
He additionally ended his article, after a bevy of implications suggesting that those who disagree with his views on gun control lack proper judgment, by writing that “the young men and women from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have earned our respect.”
To be clear, I too maintain empathy for all of the students who survived the tragic events of last month, and I support appropriately strengthening protections that can effectively be put in place to reduce the likelihood of another mass shooting at one of our country’s schools.
However, to suggest that these student survivors are a monolithic entity uniformly calling for maximum gun regulations, such as a ban on assault weapons, is disingenuous and disrespectful to those who were directly affected by the events in Parkland and hold alternative views on how to reduce this type of gun violence.
What about the student survivors who do not support banning weapons and instead believe in focusing on issues involving mental health and stronger background checks?
What about the parents, whose children did not survive the shooting, who want legislators to prioritize their focus on school safety measures rather than seeking to further prohibit the sale and purchase of certain guns?
While the utter dismissal of these individuals may very well have been an unintentional oversight by Mitchell, it is difficult to read his article without sensing that these equally grieving individuals do not hold the same “mantle of moral leadership” that Mitchell bestows upon the imaginary entity that is the indivisible group of survivors from Parkland.
The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban
The rest of Mitchell’s article proceeds by arguing that “a federal ban on military-style assault weapons” is what is needed to address “the carnage we regularly face.”
First, citing the previous ban on assault weapons which was enacted in 1994 as a portion of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, he argues that prohibiting such weapons decreases, though does not altogether end, the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings:
Given the intensity of emotion on the issue, it’s not surprising that both sides point to studies that support their position. But one analysis, by Louis Klarevas, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, is persuasive. He found that mass shootings fell by 37 percent during the ban and then increased by 183 percent after it lapsed. Also, gun deaths from mass shootings fell by 43 percent during the ban, and then increased by 239 percent afterward.
The 10 deadliest mass shootings in our country’s history all occurred either before or after the ban was in effect. And today, as weapons become more sophisticated and deadly, casualties have increased.
Surprisingly, after establishing that both sides of this issue problematically point to different data to support their opposing claims, Mitchell contributes to this very folly by blindly accepting “one analysis.”
Conveniently, Mitchell does not discuss the recent findings from a Northeastern criminology professor which found that “more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents,” than mass shootings, and “four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today.” He completely ignores the University of Pennsylvania study which found that the loopholes in the 1994 ban completely undermined the law’s effectiveness. And he also does not even mention that fact checkers have advised the public to interpret with extreme caution the exact same data which he is solely utilizing to bolster his initial argument.
Any critical reader of Mitchell’s article should be left wondering why these findings are not “persuasive” enough to be considered in the article’s analysis.
Complicated Legislative Solution
The second argument that Mitchell advances in vain is that those who claim that an assault weapons ban is “too complicated to put into legislation” are just ignorant of the government’s capacity to correct complicated problems.
Mitchell simply writes that “in limiting the emission of toxic chemicals, in evaluating the benefits and dangers of prescription drugs, in making airplanes and automobiles safer, in trying to prevent another financial crisis, Congress has dealt with complexities more daunting than the classification of assault weapons,” and should thereby be presumed competent to both make and enforce the prohibitive solution which he desires.
Even if one were to completely neglect the fact that our government has miserably failed at regulating toxic chemicals, has been forced to recall dozens of drugs as a result of improperly analyzing their respective benefits prior to permitting their admittance into US markets, has been openly criticized by the National Safety Council for “not making progress” in combatting car-related transportation fatalities, and that one could easily criticize the government’s attempts to prevent another financial crisis for days, this line of reasoning would still make no sense.
If classifying assault weapons were so easy, then why does Mitchell not provide a single definition for that term in his article?
The term “assault weapon” is a political phrase which has been defined in a multitude of different ways. The phrase has no substantive meaning outside of legislation, and anybody who would suggest otherwise is simply not aware of basic gun terminology. So while Mitchell correctly claims that an assault weapons ban could identify “the characteristics that distinguish assault weapons from other firearms,” he inconveniently disregards the fact that determining those distinguishable characteristics has historically been incredibly difficult for lawmakers to effectively do.
And to be clear, Mitchell is not calling upon Congress to simply update Merriam-Webster’s reference books. He’s advocating for a ban on certain guns, though he never clearly defines which ones.
His concluding statements would lead one to believe that he is possibly referring solely to AR-15s, but such a ban would not have even come close to stopping the deadliest school shooting in US history which involved pistols.
Under the safety conditions that Mitchell desires, the type of ban that he is advocating for would certainly need to be comprehensive, and the enforcement of such a policy would be complicated by the fact that “there are about as many guns in America as there are people.”
There is also the complication of how poorly our government applies the protective security measures that are already in place. A cursory review of the tragic shootings in San Bernardino, Charleston, and Parkland sheds light on how our government has failed in a variety of ways to effectively protect innocent people from mass shooters.
Unfortunately, a discussion of how his envisioned ban would be enforced in a way that addresses these complications is absent from Mitchell’s article.
In the end, Mitchell’s opinion piece is problematic for a variety of reasons. Primarily, while this article certainly appears to be well intentioned, its points are largely unjustifiable and, at certain times, entirely incoherent.
Forwarding an argument on questionable studies and false pretenses helps nobody.
The political discussion of gun control, which includes constitutional rights and maintains consequences involving the possible loss of innocent lives, requires contributions of significant thought and clear articulation. An author that states in his title that banning assault weapons is “not all that complicated,” yet professes in his conclusion that he does “not suggest that it is simple,” has clearly contributed neither.