January 31, 2023 By Michael Weymouth
The other day Jim Braude and Margery Egan were taking calls on Boston Public Radio from listeners on the latest mass shootings in California. There was plenty of outrage, but very little in the way of solutions. Still it is important that we all engage in these discussions. One point that was not discussed was the psychological allure of military-style assault rifles and why they seem to be the weapon of choice for so many mass shooters.
An opinion piece in the New York Times on this same subject by Jillian Peterson and James Hensley, founders of the Violence Project, enumerated the many personality traits and mental characteristics of those who turn to mass shootings as a way to address their mental health issues. The list was long, but the one that stood out was one about the need among almost all mass shooters for power and control as a way to offset the issues that were painfully missing in their own lives: “They chose mass shootings as a way to seize power and attention, forcing others to witness their pain while attempting to end their lives in a way that only they controlled.”
Enter the AR-15.
It goes without saying that an AR-15 can fire many more rounds than a run-of-the-mill hunting rifle, but aside from that, its greatest appeal is its appearance, which gives its owner an outsized sense of power. An AR-15 becomes an adrenaline rush for a would be shooter who suffers from low self-esteem, paranoia or some other form of mental illness. One can only imagine a disturbed young man standing in front of a full-length mirror, dressed in black, perhaps with a bulletproof vest, holding an AR-15 and reveling in what he sees.
Our national leaders recognized the problem posed by military-style assault weapons when a bi-partisan US Congress imposed an assault weapons ban in 1994. At the time, critics claim that it had little affect on the rate of gun deaths, but that was before mass shootings had begun. The ban was not renewed under the Bush administration 10 years later and today there are approximately 20 million assault weapons in the country. Once again, critics claim that a ban would have little affect given the number of guns already out there. They are also quick to point out that only 7 percent of gun-related deaths are from mass shootings, without acknowledging that that low number does not take into account that an entire nation feels unsafe and fears for their children’s lives when they go to school.
But were Congress to implement a ban in conjunction with an aggressive buyback program the calculus might just change. As to its workability, we should look to Australia, which implemented a national buy back program in the wake of a 1996 mass shooting that killed 35 and wounded 28. More than 650,000 guns were confiscated. In 2011, Harvard’s David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis reviewed the program and concluded that it had been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved. Australia has had no mass shootings since 1996, and deaths from firearms have dropped dramatically. More significantly, Australians can feel rightly proud that they rallied as a nation to confront a very difficult problem.
Such an assault weapon buy back program in this country would cost about $20 billion assuming each gun owner was compensated $500 per gun. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but well worth it. A similar program would be aimed at high-capacity clips for semi-automatic pistols. Would a buy back program eliminate mass shootings? No, but it would greatly reduce the number of causalities, and equally important, it would demonstrate that Americans value the lives of their children enough to make the sacrifice. More to the point, it would deprive mentally disturbed potential shooters of the adrenaline rush they get from assault rifles.
Critics would say, “Are you kidding, we can’t even rally people to wear masks in a pandemic, how are we going to get gun owners to relinquish their AR-15s?” Again, I would turn to the Australian experience. If one civilized country can do it, we can find a way to make it happen in this country. All it takes is leadership and the political will to institute a ban and the willingness of responsible gun owners to step up to the plate.