Opinion

BIDLACK: On limits and lessons — gun violence and America

Author: Hal Bidlack - October 4, 2017 - Updated: October 4, 2017

Hal Bidlack

When I awoke this Monday morning, it was my intention to write another column for Wednesday that would hopefully offer a few thoughts on political happenings or unusual events in our national or state capitols. I had no plans to write on guns. I’m a gun owner myself, as well as a former military cop. I’m also a middle-of-the-road moderate (which means here in Colorado Springs I’m often seen as a leftist; in grad school I was viewed as a right-winger), and a westerner, and I don’t usually get as excited about the gun issue as some. So, I had no plans to write on guns. Then I turned on the morning news.

I have good friends in Las Vegas, and so my first thoughts were about them. I don’t know everyone’s music tastes, and it was quite possible that a buddy might have gone to that show and been in that crowd. Happily, as we approach Monday midday, I’ve heard from everyone (thank you Facebook) and none of my friends are physically harmed. Emotionally, that’s a different story.

And so, it appears I need to write on guns. Not for you, really, but for me. Not because I have any particular insight that no other has. Not because I am a passionate advocate for one side of the argument. And not because I have the words, the turn of phrase, to make a significant difference in the minds of those deeply imbedded in this issue. No, I’ll write a few words because I turned on the morning news.

At this early time in the criminal investigation we don’t know much. It appears fairly clear that the shooter had access to weapons that fired very rapidly – likely in full-automatic mode. That simply means that you can pull the trigger once, and hold it back, and the gun will keep shooting at a tremendous rate until all the ammo is gone. By the time you read these words, you likely will know more about the mechanics, if not the motives, of this horrible or perhaps profoundly ill person. So it is foolish, if not irresponsible, to attempt to draw forth any real insights into the shooter’s journey to that 32nd floor window. But it is possible to offer a few thoughts, as the gun control debate again rises in the public consciousness before again inevitably subsiding in the public consciousness.

I will not attempt to persuade those who occupy the extremes of the gun issue. Rather, I address myself to those who find themselves horrified by the Mandalay Bay Massacre yet not sure what steps, if any, should be taken.

Often, it takes a tragedy to push through needed reforms. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 killed 146 mostly young women, and after that, we saw the introduction of meaningful fire codes and enforcement.  Hurricane Andrew came ashore on August 24, 1992, and the devastation wrought by those winds caused improvements in building codes to make future storms less deadly (there is some evidence to suggest Florida rolled back on some of those “intrusive government rules” in recent years. We’ll see what Irma teaches us).

Regarding guns, I had actually said that until a kindergarten was shot up, the American people could not be shaken from their lethargy on semi-automatic weapons. Then we had Sandy Hook Elementary School suffer the greatest possible tragedy, and even then, the power of the NRA and others proved too strong. Here in Colorado, we saw what I considered middle-of-the-road rules on guns be signed into law, and then repealed as the political winds changed direction.

And so, even in these immediate hours after the shooting in Las Vegas, I remain convinced that we will not see any change in our gun laws. Freedom and such, you know.

It is not my intention to litigate the Second Amendment. While it is often misunderstood (that whole “militia” thing), the courts of this country have generally held that there is a right to keep and bear arms. But that right is not unlimited. Even the great originalist Antonin Scalia wrote and spoke about limits on weapons ownership. I believe reasonable people agree that the right to bear arms in not unlimited. We do not accept the right of our fellow Americans to, say, possess a tactical nuclear weapon. We reject the idea that our neighbor down the street can make his own anthrax cannon. And those of us that fly regularly are likely quite content with the law that keeps regular folks from owning surface-to-air missiles. Most agree on limits for flame-throwers, grenade launchers, and mortars, homemade or otherwise. Only the most extreme fringe of the gun movement disagrees with the idea of some limits on some weapons that can be possessed.

The issue, then, is where the line is drawn. Reasonable people agree that there should be some level of gun control – the only issue is what type of limits.

Can we go back to the Founders and that mystical phrase “Founders’ intent” on this? Unfortunately, not so much. Remember that the Founders lived in a three-mile-per-hour world, wherein a wooden Man-of-War with a few dozen cannon was considered a weapon of mass destruction. Our freedom was won from the British with Brown Bess muskets (a working replica of which I own) with a rate of fire of perhaps three shots per minute, if you were really good (for me, it’s one round per minute).

The thinking behind the 2nd Amendment was largely concerned with two things – keeping the people armed well enough to repel any invading European powers, and, frankly, to bring down the U.S. government if it became tyrannical.

If we choose to keep those twin gun goals of the Founders as the rule today, we must accept that regular folks should be allowed to keep and bear the types of weapons needed to fight modern invaders and to defeat the US Army – weapons such as we seem to have seen in Las Vegas this morning. I am not sure that is the America we want to live in.

There is room to argue about gun control when it comes to things like magazine sizes and rates of fire and similar issues. There have been good and meaningful gun laws and there have been silly gun laws. Surely, as we emerge from the fog of this morning’s shooting, we can at least agree to have a calm and measured discussion? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I wish I was not so pessimistic. But if Sandy Hook can’t convince, what can we expect of Las Vegas?

There is no reason to expect weapons to become less deadly. Nor should we expect the nature of humankind to fundamentally change. This is why this morning saddens me, but only barely shocks me. After Hurricane Andrew, they made stronger buildings. What shall we do after Las Vegas? I suspect not too much.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.


2 comments

  • Jim Mercer

    October 4, 2017 at 9:37 am

    Well said, Hal.
    On simple step that could be taken legislatively is to better define what an “automatic weapon” or “machine gun” is, and then require Federal licensing/permission to either own one, or to own an item (such as a so-called “bump stock”) or any other device designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to fire at a rate exceeding human capacity. (Pick a rate of fire, if that’s a better way of doing it.)

    There’s no legitimate civilian reason whatsoever for any rifle – or pistol, for that matter – to fire rounds as rapidly as these devices permit.

    Then limit magazine sizes.

    Neither will cure the issue, but these measures at least will help. And – in my opinion – not having a “cure” isn’t a justification for doing nothing.

    We don’t have a “cure” for cancer, yet we still use chemotherapy – because it helps extend lives. The above won’t cure the violence problem, but it will help preserve lives.

    Just my thoughts, of course.

  • Neil Talbott

    October 4, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for your insightful columns. Keep them coming.

Comments are closed.