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View from around the nation: Time has come for serious debate on assault weapons

— From the Chicago Tribune

FBI, Orlando Police Department and personnel from the Orange County Sheriff's Office investigate the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. New reports show that law enforcement officials immediately suspected terrorism and adjusted their staging areas due to fears about an explosive device as they responded to reports of shots fired at the gay nightclub in Orlando. In incident reports released Saturday, June 25, Orange County Sheriff's Office deputies describe receiving limited information about an "active shooter" as they rushed to control the chaos outside Pulse on June 12. (Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today via AP, File)

FBI, Orlando Police Department and personnel from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office investigate the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12. (Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today via AP, File)

All guns kill. Some do so with horrifying efficiency.

In Orlando, a heavily armed madman opened fire on the crowd at a gay nightclub. The attack killed 49 people and wounded 53. It also reopened the tortured debate about gun ownership in America, where the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms. In many states that protection translates into the ability to walk into a store, fill out minimal paperwork and leave with a military-style rifle.

The Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, is responsible for shooting more than 100 people. He was carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol, which he purchased legally in Florida in the days before the attack.

We also know — from a brief video uploaded to Snapchat by one of the victims, Amanda Alvear, before she died — what the early moments of the massacre sounded like: a frantic drumbeat of shots, 17 or more in about nine seconds, one shot per trigger-pull in a continual barrage.

Mateen carried an AR-style assault rifle with 30-round magazines, giving him 30 shots before reloading. These civilian versions of the military’s M16 rifle are fast, accurate and comfortable to fire. They are bought by Americans for target shooting, hunting and self-defense — but designed to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack, went Mateen’s rifle in the video. Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack.

There is no simple solution for eliminating the scourge of gun violence in America. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own guns for self-defense. But even if the bedrock principle of gun ownership is here to stay, the high court noted that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

If you’re looking to apply that legal guidance to the reduction of killings, especially the horror of mass shootings, one place to look is Highland Park, Ill. That’s where a recent ban on assault weapons has survived judicial scrutiny. While the Supreme Court knocked out Chicago’s prohibition on handguns in 2010, it declined last year to consider a challenge to Highland Park’s ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, passed in 2013. We don’t know the high court’s thinking because it took a pass, but the lower court, Chicago’s 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said assault weapons were dangerous and unusual enough to justify banning.

“Why else are they the weapon of choice in mass shootings?” Judge Frank Easterbrook asked. “A ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines might not prevent shootings in Highland Park, but it may reduce the carnage if a mass shooting occurs.”

Wise words. And all too accurate, given the ugly history of mass shootings in America. The Washington-based Violence Policy Center counts five incidents in the past year in which a mass killer used high-capacity ammunition magazines: Orlando; Kalamazoo, Mich. (six dead); San Bernardino, Calif. (14 dead); Chattanooga, Tenn. (six dead including the shooter); and Charleston, S.C. (nine dead). Go back further: Newtown, Conn. (28 dead, including the shooter); Fort Hood, Texas (13 dead).

The history of assault weapon bans is murkier than many might remember. A federal ban on the manufacture and sale of such weapons was in place from 1994 to 2004, but possession of those already in existence remained legal.

Given the Supreme Court’s recent Second Amendment decisions, restoring the assault weapon ban is constitutionally questionable. A limit on the size of magazines would be more likely to survive court scrutiny. And it would serve to make semi-automatic weapons somewhat less lethal. Limiting magazines to eight or 10 rounds would hinder mass shooters while imposing minimal inconvenience on law-abiding gun owners.

On what grounds can the country justify giving citizens the ability to fire off 30 or more rounds in a near burst? Or 50 rounds? Or 100? In the hands of a killer, that kind of firepower overwhelms even crowds of people. Forcing an assailant to reload, though, buys time for victims to flee or defend themselves.

In the 1993 Long Island Railroad shooting, a passenger charged the assailant, who was reloading; that disruption of the shooter’s intent limited the death count to six people.

Would such a limit have reduced the bloodshed in Orlando? It’s impossible to answer. What we know is that the pattern of mass shootings is set and quite possibly will intensify, given the grave terror threat the country faces. Combating our enemies takes a coordinated response. That has to include a serious national debate about the role of guns in American life and justifiable limits on gun ownership.

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