End the Cycle of Slaughter

A retired federal judge calls for sensible arms regulations 

By Thomas Coffin

Mass shootings are a rampant disease in our nation. We are numbed by the incidents and carnage. A partial list includes: Virginia Tech, 33 fatalities (2007); Fort Hood, 14 fatalities (2009); Sandy Hook Elementary, 27 fatalities (2012); San Bernardino, 14 fatalities (2015); Orlando Pulse nightclub, 49 fatalities (2016); Sutherland Springs Texas Baptist Church, 26 fatalities (2017); Las Vegas, 58 fatalities (2017); Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 fatalities (2018); Gilroy Garlic Festival, three fatalities, 13 wounded (2019); El Paso, 22 fatalities, 24 wounded (2019); Dayton, 9 fatalities, 27 wounded (2019).

The trend continues, with each shooting followed by hollow expressions of sympathy from elected officials who refuse to enact reasonable measures to prevent or limit the terrible toll from this societal epidemic — an epidemic that promises to continue in the absence of long-overdue intervention by the very government that has unleashed this disease on our civilian population in the first place by its failure to act.

Military weaponry, used in all the above shootings and many more, too numerous to count, was never intended for and should never have been marketed to the civilian population. Semi-automatic high velocity assault rifles with accessories such as bump stocks and large-capacity magazines are designed to inflict mass casualties on the enemy in combat, not for hunting or other traditional civilian use. To quote from an emergency room physician who responded to the school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and wrote of her experiences in The Atlantic:

“In a typical handgun injury, which I diagnose almost daily, a bullet leaves a laceration through an organ such as the liver. To a radiologist, it appears as a linear, thin, gray bullet track through the organ. There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments.

“I was looking at a CT scan of one of the shooting victims, who had been brought to the trauma center during my call shift. The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively. How could a gunshot wound have caused this much damage?”

The writer, radiologist Heather Sher, continues, “The bullets fired by an AR-15 are different: They travel at a higher velocity and are far more lethal than routine bullets fired from a handgun.”

These military weapons were not generally available to the public until relatively recently. I know from my own past experience as a federal prosecutor that the arms industry itself limited production and sale of semi-automatic assault rifles to the military and law enforcement until the mid-to-late 1980s, when the NRA and arms industry began to advocate a novel and distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment that promoted a private right to possess firearms based in part on the notion that this right was hinged on a right to rebel against the government itself. 

A noted historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Garry Wills, thoroughly examined and debunked this reinvention of the Second Amendment in 1995. Among his other scholarly observations, Wills cites the fact that the same Founders who drafted the Second Amendment also defined “treason” in the body of the Constitution as taking up arms against the government (New York Review of Books, “To Keep and Bear Arms”). Thus it makes no sense to contend that the Founders’ purpose of the Second Amendment was to empower citizens to commit treason.

Beyond advocating for an expansive and illogical interpretation of the Constitution, the NRA has successfully lobbied for Congressional action that allowed an Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) to expire in 2004 (the AWB had been enacted by a different Congress in 1994 after 98 people had been murdered by assailants in California and Texas using such weaponry), as well as legislation (the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act), which immunized arms manufacturers and dealers from any civil liability for the inevitable mass shootings that followed after the expiration of the AWB.

Most recently, in 2019, the NRA has joined in sponsoring the euphemistically titled “Hearing Protection Act,” which would eliminate the ban on silencers and allow their sale to the general public in the same manner as other firearms. To state the obvious, a mass shooter with an AR-15 equipped with a silencer and extra capacity magazines could cause even greater casualties if the victims and police could not tell where the shots were coming from.

Congress needs to protect the people, not the revenue stream of arms dealers. Our schools, churches, theaters, malls, stadiums and all public venues need to be made safe again. Sensible gun regulation is a necessary part of the equation, and our legislators must assign the highest priority to public safety in order to bring an end to this cycle of slaughter, which is directly attributable to woefully lax restrictions on weapons of war. In the name of all that this nation stands for, the people, and especially our children, deserve to have their lives placed above the profits of arms merchants or the campaign coffers of politicians. ν

A former federal prosecutor, Judge Thomas Coffin was a U.S. magistrate for the District of Oregon until his retirement in 2017.