Burke: A ‘gun guy’s take on rights, a response to shootings

Regardless of individual beliefs on the issues, no one wants to see one more death of an innocent.

By Tom Burke

Herald columnist

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part exploration of firearms, Second Amendment rights, mass shootings are how to respond to those massacres. The second part will be published in The Herald next Monday.

I’m a gun guy.

In early ‘60s middle school I began shooting small-bore rifle on the school rifle team, kept shooting through senior high and college. Later, I hunted a bit (deer and ducks mostly) but didn’t really like killing stuff, so I stuck to shooting paper and clay pigeons.

Historical guns interest me (if only an 1892 Krag-Jorgensen, like “Teddy” carried up San Juan Hill, could talk!). Plus, they’re fun to shoot. At paper. At the range.

I also appreciate modern pistols, rifles and shotguns. And I understand why folks own and shoot them for competition, hunting, self-defense, and just plain fun.

I understand, too, people’s dedication to the Second Amendment (2-A), which uniquely gives Americans the right to keep and bear arms. (And yes, there’s vigorous debate about that, but the Supreme Court currently seems to be supporting it as an individual right.)

Now let’s be clear: We cannot tolerate another gun death. Not one more.

But a lot of the popularly-ballyhooed “common sense” gun laws won’t stop the killing.

Facts first: Most of the 30,000 annual U.S. gun deaths (around two-thirds) are suicides. And tightening gun laws probably won’t save the lives of people determined to die by their own hand.

The next biggest batch of gun violence is attributed to criminals and their drug wars, turf battles, and other such contretemps. A former Seattle police chief said 90 percent of that city’s shootings were gang-related. And gang guys aren’t going through FBI background checks; they’re buying stolen or black-market guns and legislation isn’t going to stop that, although universal background checks and safe storage laws would help.

Which opens the question of how, and for whom, “common sense” gun laws are written. Criminals, by definition, will break the law to get a gun. Serious competitive shooters, collectors, cowboy-action sport aficionados, targets shooters, hunters, and those wanting a gun for self-protection will obey them. So who are the laws being written for?

Depends on who you ask. Pro 2-A folks say such laws don’t do anything to reduce gun violence. Proponents of stricter laws says they will. There’s research affirming both positions. But partisans completely trash and deride anything that doesn’t bolster their argument.

And, unfortunately, some advocates for tougher gun legislation aver their proposals are only a first step, and their ultimate goal is to outlaw all gun ownership, via an incremental strategy to get to, “no more guns.”

Which makes responsible gun owners very, very nervous, if not suspicious, or outright hostile and ends any chance of reasonable compromise.

Modern sporting rifles aka “assault rifles”: Of course, today’s headline-grabbing question is what to do about assault rifles also known as modern sporting rifles.

“Assault” rifles, they are not. (Assault rifles are strictly military weapons, have select fire for either full auto, three-shot bursts, or single shot, and have been restricted in this country since the mid-1930s.)

Today’s modern sporting rifles are semi-automatic rifles, invented back in the 1880s, but cosmetically dressed to look like current-day military weapons. And, whether they look like modern military arms or old-fashioned hunting rifles, they all function similarly: pull the trigger, the gun goes bang, another bullet automatically loads, and then you have to pull the trigger again for another bang.

First, let’s agree both terms are deliberate propaganda, words chosen to attack or defend this type of firearm. They are words made for a purpose.

But here’s what makes modern semi-automatics different from older semi-automatics: first, they simply look different; and next, they shoot small bullets (.223 caliber) really fast (3,251 feet per second); while older semi-autos shoot big bullets .30 caliber) a lot slower (2,740 fps). The muzzle-energy difference: for the .223 AR-15, 1,250 foot pounds of energy; for the .30-06, 2,920 foot pounds of energy. Which, ballistically, makes the older guns more lethal. But, and it’s a big but, .223s are lighter, more ergonomic, and have less recoil; making them easier and faster to shoot.

Clearly, a bunch of folks use modern semi-autos for target shooting, competition, self-defense, and hunting varmints. And a much smaller bunch have used them for slaughter.

But there’s another (big) difference between the two: magazine capacity. The new ones hold a lot more bullets. And that’s where the real public policy debate should focus. What’s a reasonable mag capacity: 10; 20; 30; a drum of 100?

Kids killing kids: There’s another critical issue we must face: young men and youths who kill their school mates.

Last year I interviewed Dr. Henry Berman, a Clinical Professor at Seattle Children’s Hospital/University of Washington about why kids are killing now; while years ago, when I was young in the 1960s and guns were so easy to buy — clip an ad from a magazine and a WWII military-surplus weapon would arrive at your home without a background check and with all the dispatch of Amazon Prime — it simply didn’t happen.

His conclusion: “Society’s changes have altered boys’ behavior.”

Berman explained that among today’s 10 million 15- to 19-year-olds, about 2 million (20 percent) have mental health problems. And over the past years maybe a dozen of these boys have had such severe problems they’ve killed classmates and others.

Berman and I spoke for over an hour (which I wrote about here), barely scratching the surface of the issue. But, from an adolescent medicine perspective, he was clear: ID kids with mental health issues and GET THEM HELP. NOW!

Next week I’ll examine the ideas and laws to help reduce gun violence.

Stay tuned.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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