Politics & Policy

A Time for Congressional Calm

Blaming the Tucson massacre on Sarah Palin is absurd; blaming it on U.S. gun laws is merely misguided.

We’re not surprised that liberals are using this horrific bloodbath as proof that America needs tougher curbs on firearms and ammunition. We just wish they would keep their facts straight.

Here’s what we know about accused killer Jared Lee Loughner: He purchased his weapon, a Glock 19 pistol, after undergoing a routine background check. While Loughner had repeatedly shown signs of mental illness, he was not listed in the FBI database of those Americans ineligible to buy guns. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that he certainly should have been treated for major psychiatric disorders. But on the day he entered a Sportsman’s Warehouse to acquire his Glock, Loughner had no formal history of insanity or schizophrenia. After several run-ins with campus police, he had withdrawn from Pima Community College (PCC) rather than seek medical clearance from a mental-health professional.

He never was treated, much less declared mentally incompetent under the law. On paper, then, Loughner did not seem an obvious threat to public safety. While Arizona has famously permissive gun statutes, the Tucson killer would have been able to buy his weapon in states with much tighter laws.

Besides denouncing Arizona, gun controllers are also condemning George W. Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans, who allowed the Clinton assault-weapons ban (AWB) to expire seven years ago. “The type of magazine used by Mr. Loughner was once banned in the United States,” says the Washington Post editorial page, echoing many others. “But that brief era of sanity came to an end in 2004, when Congress refused to renew the assault-weapons ban passed in the summer of 1994.”

This argument is misleading at best and outright false at worst. As NR’s Kevin Williamson has noted, the AWB merely prohibited “the manufacture or importation of new magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds” (our emphasis). Existing 31-round magazines were still available for purchase. The AWB outlawed their creation, but it did not ban their sale or possession. At no time during the ban were such magazines difficult to come by. Let us repeat that: Even if the AWB had been extended in 2004, Jared Lee Loughner would have been able to legally purchase a 31-round clip.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D., N.Y.) are now preparing legislation to forbid the sale of such clips. Meanwhile, Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) is sponsoring a measure to criminalize the conscious possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of federal lawmakers and other officials. These are predictable responses to a terrible tragedy, but we doubt that either bill would do much to prevent the next Tucson. Violent psychotics intent on committing mass murder will always pose a huge danger to society, regardless of whether they can legally buy 31-round magazines or legally bring a weapon near a politician.

Indeed, if the ghastly events in Arizona are to prompt a “national conversation” about anything, let it be a conversation about the mentally ill, and about how we treat those who reject the treatment they desperately need. The gun-control proposals being floated in Washington would do very little to boost public safety. At the same time, they would curtail the Second Amendment freedoms of peaceful, law-abiding citizens — the type of citizens who tackled Loughner in the midst of his rampage and thereby saved many lives. Knee-jerk legislation is rarely a good idea. The current moment is no exception.


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