The pushback begins

If you wanted to get a snapshot of the two contrasting sides of the emotionally charged issue of gun control, all you had to do was look from one roundabout to the other last Saturday morning in Manchester. Occupying the center island of the main roundabout for an hour was a group identified with One Million Moms for Gun Control, which was organizing a series of demonstrations across the country. On the other side, next to the smaller "button" roundabout, was a smaller group of folks, but just as committed, who were opposed to anything that could be seen as a retreat from Second Amendment rights to gun ownership. It's worth noting that both groups stood within eyeshot of each other, both were civil, and both got their message out to drivers who indicated support by honking their horns.

Let's hope that in coming weeks and months as debate continues over this contentious issue, both here in Vermont and nationally, such civility reigns and both sides get a fair hearing. Both sides make valid points, and there should be a way to arrive at a point where it's harder for mentally disturbed people to get their hands on "military-style assault weapons" and the rights of legitimate gun owners are protected.

One of the issues here may be defining exactly what a "military-style assault weapon" is, but for now, we'll go with a common sense understanding of it as a rifle that shoots more than 10 rounds of ammunition at a rapid pace. We know there's more to it than that, but let's start there.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. last December, the outcry to "do something" about making it harder to obtain such "assault weapons" seemed loud and unstoppable. But in the weeks since we've seen the pushback starting and gathering strength. Just getting back to where we were in 1994 - when Congress passed a law that restricted sales of such guns for 10 years (the law was allowed to lapse in 2004 and has not been reinstated) - is far from assured. In fact, gun control advocates may wind up calling it a victory if more thorough-going background checks prior to such sales are approved. Such an outcome might have seemed small bore (no pun intended) in the days immediately following the Newtown tragedy, but the ability of organizations like the National Rifle Association and other groups determined to see no watering down of Second Amendment rights is impressive.

Here in Vermont, another bill that would have banned assault-weapons in-state died a sudden death when Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County, withdrew his proposed legislation after it became clear to him, he says, that there was not enough support among fellow lawmakers, and among the general population of the state, to pass it. That may have been premature. If lawmakers in liberal, progressive Vermont feel the ground shifting under their feet on this issue, it's hard to picture a state-by-state approach getting us where we need to be.

While acknowledging that those who interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution literally - where the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined - worry that the camel's nose sticking inside the tent is a forerunner to unrestrained government regulation and restricting ownership of all manner of firearms, such fears seem wildly overblown. What makes sense is restricting the sale of weapons of extreme lethality - like those capable of firing more than 10 rounds of ammunition at a rapid pace, and putting in place some more robust and effective background checks. It may be that certain people - like farmers worried about coyotes - have a need for such automatic or semi-automatic weapons. If you can prove that, and are willing to ensure they will be stored in a safe place when not in use, then fine. But otherwise, they should be the sole province of law enforcement officials and military personnel. What is so complicated about that?

While it is certainly true that mental health services also need to be strengthened - since yes, it takes a person to pull a trigger and guns don't go off by themselves - we have a crisis of gun violence in this country going on right now. Assuming that money can be found to upgrade what's available to treat those in need of help - hardly a certainty in this fiscal environment and assuming these people can be identified without the rest of us truly feeling like Big Brother is indeed watching- the most effective way to stop future Newtowns, Auroras and Virginia Tech-style random acts of violence is to make it harder for emotionally disturbed people to get their hands on them in the first place. That's just common sense. Nothing is perfect. We just have to do the best we can.

It's been said many times before and is worth repeating again - more than 99.9 percent of gun owners in America are responsible, safety-conscious people who are just as horrified by incidents like the one in Newtown as anyone else. People who enjoy hunting or recreational target shooting should have nothing to fear from restrictions that make it harder to obtain weapons whose primary purpose is for use on a battlefield. There's plenty of space for gun owners and gun control advocates to overlap. But Congress will not act unless the passions unleashed by the Newtown tragedy are sustained. The political sway of the NRA is simply too great. People who care about mitigating the untrammeled gun violence in this country are going to have to prepare for a long game.

There is a compromise position that should give something to both sides. Simply bringing back the 1994 ban on assault weapons would be best, and would seem the obvious logical answer; sadly, even that may be unrealistically optimistic. Incredible, really, when you think about it.


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