Calm discussion needed on guns

The latest shooting of students and staff at a Florida high school has rekindled and inflamed the debate about guns in America. A bit of historical perspective might be useful for a calmer discussion of the issue.

Civilian use of firearms has revolved around several social functions. Personal and family protection, hunting and target or sport shooting are most commonly cited. The essential skill for success in any of these endeavors is marksmanship, the ability to put the first round where it needs to be, to interrupt a personal or family threat, to get that trophy buck or to succeed in the recently completed Olympic biathlon. Marksmanship also was the essential skill for military success with firearms, from their earliest development well into the 19th century. At the time the Constitution was being drafted, and for many years thereafter, the same weaponry served both purposes. The plain language of the Second Amendment reflects this.

Firearms advances between the Civil War and World War I saw the beginning of a differentiation between civilian and military skills and needs. The development of Browning Automatic Rifles and Thompson submachine guns during World War I signalled the change in military needs from marksmanship to firepower, the ability to send many rounds quickly downrange against a human enemy. This distinction between the needs of civilians and the military is at the heart of today’s dilemma.

While federal law has prohibited civilian ownership of machine guns since the 1930s, semi-automatic rifles capable of being switched to automatic fire have been adopted, appropriately, as standard arms for most modern armed forces. Similar rifle types such as the AR-15 have been in the civilian market for some time, and the ability for these to be switched or modified for automatic fire are the present concern. If add-on devices such as “bump stocks” and large-capacity magazines were made unavailable for them, they might be considered appropriate as hunting rifles. Pistols are commonly the choice for home or self-defense. Here the same question of magazine size is applicable — the standard capacity should suffice for an owner proficient in the use of his weapon. Marksmanship is essential when there is family around!

The key question to be answered with regard to any rifle or add-on device should be: Is marksmanship improved by this device, or does it enhance firepower? It is not suggested the threat to schools or other public places would be eliminated, but it could be possible to reduce the severity or frequency of such attacks. As a society, we must be vigilant in our efforts to identify prospective dangerous people and do our utmost to limit their access to more dangerous firearms. Background checks for all purchasers, mental health screenings and warnings, hot-line tips can help. Working together and engaging in calm discussion may help to move us forward a safer future for our children, families and society.