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Congressman, are you listening?

“You have 30 minutes, well really 25 because the Congressman ran late.” With these words we were ushered into a room with Rep. Bill Johnson and two staffers. Rep. Johnson interrupted me half way through my ten minute presentation on sensible gun legislation to remind me again of the time limit. He suggested that I leave plenty of time for his response.

He cited Chicago gun violence three times, presumably because Chicago has banned some guns. He referred to the fear that a “black market” in illicit guns would develop if assault rifles are banned. He admitted that the current law already allows for an underground purchase of guns without a background check. Both of us acknowledged that 40 minutes from Marietta in a Flea Market right off I-77 guns are for sale with no questions asked.

Rep. Johnson attempted to blame the mass shootings on mental health laws which I countered with my thirty years as a mental health professional treating patients who were more often a danger to themselves than to the public. The most concerning excuse offered by Rep. Johnson occurred when I described the need to discern the difference between weapons of war and other guns. I cited the 1934 ban on fully automatic assault weapons as well as other laws which prohibit civilian possession of tanks, grenade launchers and missile launchers. Rep. Johnson informed me that he “was not in Congress” when those bans were passed. The implication seems to be that had he been, he would have voted against those bans too.

It is a sad day in our democracy when this is the best defense a member of Congress can offer to one of the biggest perceived threats to the lives of his constituents. The full text of my argument on the need for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines follows.

The case for a federal ban on military-style assault weapons and large capacity magazines

The loss of life and serious injury continues to climb in America as the result of more frequent and more deadly mass shootings. These mass murders have occurred in schools, places of worship, theatres, music festivals and now the ubiquitous Walmart store. Americans can no longer hide from the fact that anyone, at any time may become the victim of a mass shooting.

In 1994 following the murder of five children and the injury of 30 more in Stockton, CA five years earlier, the Congress of the United States banned the “manufacture, transfer and possession” of certain assault weapons and large capacity magazines. For ten years the country saw little change in the incidence of gun violence; however, there was a decline in both the incidence of mass shootings and fatalities from the same. A mass shooting is defined as an event where six or more persons are killed.

The following data was reported by Klarevas of the University of Massachusetts in 2016.

1984-1994: 19 incidents of mass shooting; 155 fatalities.

1994-2004: 12 incidents of mass shooting; 89 fatalities.

2004-2014: 34 incidents of mass shooting; 302 fatalities.

These statistics do not include the more recent murders at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, SC, Parkland High School in Florida, the Living Tree synagogue in Philadelphia, a small church in Texas, a Festival in Gilroy, CA, the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas or the deaths of nine Ohioans in Dayton. In all of these cases the shooter was equipped not only with a semi-automatic weapon but had a large capacity magazine. In the case of the Dayton shooter, he was using a 100 round drum. How are such materials of war available outside of the military?

One answer of the many that surround this complex issue is that gun manufacturers profit from the sale of assault weapons and the large capacity magazines used in these shootings. While Wayne La Pierre of the National Rifle Association claims that the ten year ban on assault weapons did little to stop crime, the real issue is the frequency and number of gun deaths in mass shootings. While universal background checks, red flag laws and other measures are important, curbing the supply of high capacity arms in communities remains the best way to make it more difficult for criminals, sane or otherwise to murder Americans.

Prior to the 1994 ban there were 1.5 million assault weapons in the U.S. and 25-50 million large capacity magazines. Presently, it is estimated that the number of assault weapons now tops three million. In the 1994 ban the manufacture and sale actually increased as gun owners scurried to buy weapons and ammunition before the ban went into effect. As a result there was an increase in the number of guns in the country. After the ban became effective, gun manufacturers made small modifications to make the guns “legal” while retaining their lethal abilities. Additionally, imports of guns from outside the US increased despite a 1998 Executive Order prohibiting such imports. Like the illicit drugs, gun still poured into US cities.

One change that was noted by law enforcement during the ten year ban was that they were confiscating fewer assault weapons, presumably because criminals were electing to use the smaller handguns which are easier to conceal and less expensive. What they did have; however, were the same large capacity magazines. Regardless of the type of weapon, the ability to fire round after round into a crowd or at law enforcement greatly increased the lethality of mass shootings. No longer is accuracy a prerequisite for murder as simply spraying endless rounds guarantees the desired outcome for the shooter.

In the 1920’s and 30’s mob figures routinely used automatic weapons to wage war on both one another and police. In 1934 the Congress passed a ban on automatic weapons which remains in effect today. Individuals are also prohibited from owning other weapons of war such as tanks, grenade launchers, hand-held missile launchers etc. The need to restrict some kinds of guns and ammunition while allowing others is consistent with both public safety and the second amendment.

What is not consistent or sensible is to deprive large numbers of people of life and inflict life-changing injuries on countless others in order to protect the rights of a few. In fact, the trauma from mass shootings has reached the point that even children who have not been in a school shooting are fearful that they will be, adults wonder if they too should arm themselves and police departments are often “out-gunned” by the fire power on city streets.

Current public opinion polls place support of the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and large capacity magazines at 70%. This number includes 57% of registered Republicans. The call for universal background checks to close the “gun-show loophole” is even higher at 90%. Why then does Congress fail to act? The answer lies in the strong lobbying effort of the NRA and the manufacturers of guns and ammunition. Congress members who put their own re-election finances above public safety have no place in office. Public opinion has moved, now Congress must act.

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio’s 10th Congressional District has stated that he is now in favor of a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. The congressman, who represents Dayton, Ohio credits his change of mind to the realization that his own daughter was “across the street” from the most recent mass murder in Dayton. Hopefully, other members of Congress will put themselves in the shoes of everyday Americans who feel helpless to protect themselves or their children.

The attached petitions represent only a sampling of residents of the Sixth Congressional District of Ohio who support universal background checks, red flag laws and a ban on assault weapons and the large capacity magazines that are so deadly. We urge you, Rep. Johnson to take this up when you return to Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9. Thank you.

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