On a bright June morning two years ago, I stopped by Dr. José Rizal Park on Beacon Hill to watch a professional forestry crew clear invasive plants from slopes too steep for the volunteer teams I lead. I got to talking with Frank, who owns and manages the business, about weird stuff we’ve recovered in the woods.

I’d finished my story about a sheep skull I’d found — its tooth sockets contained little candles for some ritual — when he said, “We found a pistol today.”

“Can I see it?”

He hollered down to one of his workers, who tossed an object uphill. It landed just in front of my feet.

I immediately recognized it — so would you if you’d ever seen a western. A Colt Single Action Army .45 revolver, also called a “Peacemaker.” The kind of pistol carried by gunslingers, ranchers and lawmen in the Old West, by George S. Patton, T.E. Lawrence and Teddy Roosevelt.

The gun was thoroughly rusted — it had all its moving parts, but none of them moved. There were chambered rounds, lead bullets long ago dissolved by rain. The model dates from the 19th century.

It is the only gun I own. I have had others but do not possess working firearms now, as I live in a city with a professional police force. If I lived in a rural area, I would own a hunting rifle, a shotgun and a revolver — likely the modern double-action Ruger equivalent of the rusted Colt. These would be tools for hunting and for dealing with rabid animals — I’ve lived in areas where rabies is endemic, and there is no reasoning with rabies.

I would never own an assault weapon or “a modern sporting rifle,” as they’re euphemistically called. Its primary purpose is to kill human beings.

 

More casualties from guns

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Newtown, Conn., we’re witnessing a predictable reaction by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and paranoid gun advocates. 

On Friday, Dec. 21, one week after the massacre — a .223 Bushmaster spin-off of an M16 was used by the killer — the NRA announced it endorsed armed police at every school and would develop a model for armed volunteers to patrol school grounds. 

NRA lobbyist and spokesman Wayne LaPierre said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Such thinking is delusional. There is no shortage of guns in the United States, and they make us no safer.

On any given day of the Gulf War, the Iraqi War and the Afghanistan War, there were more citizens killed and wounded by gunfire in the United States than American military casualties. From 1955 through 1975, the United States suffered some 214,000 killed, wounded and missing in action in Vietnam. 

We are currently averaging 30,000 civilian casualties of gunfire each year in this country. If those were soldiers, we would consider the cost unsustainable to the nation. It is a cost we should recognize as unsustainable.

To achieve meaningful reform, we must ban civilian ownership of assault weapons.

To understand how to make that ban work, we need to understand how military-style weapons became widely available.

A ban did work

After World War I, we entered the age of popular automatic firepower. Two weapons developed too late for the trenches — the Browning automatic rifle and the Thompson submachine gun — became weapons of choice for organized crime during the 1920s. It wasn’t until the National Firearms Act of 1934 that ownership of machine guns, as well as sawed-off shotguns and rifles, would be effectively banned under federal law.

Following World War II, ownership of surplus military rifles was common. M1 Garands and .303 Lee Enfields were popular with hunters. As these rifles transitioned out of service, the modern generation of assault weapons entered. 

The gun manufacturers made as rapid an introduction of slightly modified military-style rifles into the civilian market for one reason only: profit.

That cash created motive for the conflict we see today. Almost immediately, these firearms became paramilitarized. 

The most famous adoption was by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Armed with AR-15s, the Catholic IRA engaged in a war of attrition with the British army, the local constabulary and armed Protestant Unionists. 

This is the same type of rifle Adam Lanza used in Newtown, Conn.

It has been available for 40 years. There is no need for it or similar weapons, and marketing them as “modern sporting rifles” is absurd. You do not need an assault weapon to hunt deer or target practice. The only way to get them out of the hands of people who would use them against other people is to ban them.

The manufacturers and their allies like the NRA will fight a ban with every dollar they can muster and every politician they can buy. They will say there are so many of these guns and their large-capacity magazines already in private hands that the ban would be meaningless. They will say criminals will still have them.

The machine gun ban of 1934 proves such regulation can work. Not all crime with Tommy guns ended, but they substantially decreased. We should expect the same decrease in shootings involving assault weapons. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

 

Still want one?

What of our fellow citizens who want these firearms? If you truly want to be around automatic weapons, you should enlist in the United States Armed Forces. They will teach you how to use them, and they will teach you why not to. 

Because I was a civilian trainer for the U.S. Army, I appreciate how the Army trains its troops. Military-style rifles have no place in civilian hands, any more than the 105 mm guns I saw in action in M60 tanks at the armor training base at Grafenwöhr, Germany.

Today, there are 300 million guns in the United States. There are 300 million people in the United States, too. It’s time we decide which is more important.

CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.