The Universal Notebook: The ugly arguments for assault weapons

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U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is taking unmerciful grief from liberals like me for not having the courage to bring a ban on assault weapons up for a vote.

Reid, who comes off as a wimp most of the time anyway, said he simply counted noses and realized that he didn’t have the votes to pass an assault weapons ban. I wish he had brought the ban up for a vote, not because I think it would have passed, but just to tick off the National Rifle Association and its minions.

I would still support a ban just to make the statement that two-thirds of Americans don’t own guns and are opposed to civilian ownership of military weapons. But if we have people on the U.S. Supreme Court who think that the Second Amendment protects our right to bear shoulder-fired rocket launchers, I guess we can’t expect political support for a ban on assault rifles.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 would ban 157 specific weapons by name. Tops on the list is the Bushmaster AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, but the list also includes such infernal machines as Remington R-15 rifles, Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifles, all Thompson rifles, and the Uzi carbine. Fine with me, but probably not effective in the long run.

Just as nefarious politicos immediately find ways around any attempt to limit campaign contributions, wily arms merchants would surely change names and minutiae of design to thwart the intent of an assault weapons ban. And I can only begin to imagine the American blood bath if law enforcement personnel were sent out to try to disarm the gun crazies.

Feinstein’s bill has a far longer list of weapons not prohibited by the proposed assault weapons ban, but the lengths to which Feinstein had to go to try to define an assault weapon and the fact that she had to resort to listing makes and models seems to confirm what several reasonable people have told me in recent months – an assault weapons ban would essentially have to ban all semiautomatic rifles and pistols. Again, fine with me, but then I don’t want or need a semiautomatic weapon.

I knew the assault weapons ban had little or no chance back in early February when I read that our own independent Sen. Angus King, a moderate voice I am generally willing to listen to even in the midst of my near-constant liberal outrage, did not support it. I wrote to King urging him to reconsider. He replied that he supports universal background checks and limits on the resale of guns and on the size of magazines, but he questioned whether an assault weapon is functionally different from a semiautomatic hunting rifle or “simply uglier.”

So this is where things get ugly.

Americans reacted in horror to the slaughter of the innocents at Newtown, Conn., in December and the immediate response was to call for a ban on the sort of weapon used to kill so many children so fast and so violently, a ban that was actually in place from 1994 to 2004.

But before the healing had even begun, opponents of an assault weapons ban were successfully changing the subject from gun violence to gun design – pistol grips, detachable stocks, barrel shrouds, accessory rails – essentially making the argument that the poor AR-15 was being picked on just because it is ugly.

Well, the AR-15 is ugly – in every conceivable sense of the word. It is visually unpleasing, morally repugnant, socially unredeemable, recreationally unnecessary, and conceptually heinous. It is a gun made for mayhem. We should be able to rid this country of such threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but we can’t. In the Maine congressional delegation, I have a feeling only Rep. Chellie Pingree might have supported a renewal of the assault weapons ban.

A ban on assault weapons would have made a lot of us feel better even if it didn’t work, but the evil genie is already out of the bottle. Assault weapons are an ugly fact of American life, so we are just going to have to find other ways to keep the peace.

Still, it is a clear sign of American gun sickness when reasonable people conclude that there is no way to keep weapons of war off the streets of America.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.