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More than ever, assault weapons are an undeniable threat to representative government

For too long, threats of physical harm have been used to intimidate lawmakers trying to do something about America’s nightmare of gun violence. The Jan. 6 insurrection will only embolden those who make such threats.

President Joe Biden is calling for a ban on assault weapons.
AP Photos

The political give-and-take at the heart of a democracy can’t function under a threat of armed violence. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has warned our nation, like nothing that’s come before, that lawmakers at all levels are vulnerable to such threats.

The United States needs to act before elected officials become paralyzed by threats from a small minority of pro-gun absolutists.

For too long, threats of violence have been used to intimidate lawmakers who are trying to address gun violence. The Jan. 6 insurrection will only embolden those who make the threats.

These are the “good guys?”

Gun-rights advocates have long argued that “good guys” with guns are an important defense against “bad guys.” But we have now seen how many people, who up to that moment might have been classified as “good guys,” were willing to attack police officers, smash their way into Congress and call for the death of a vice president and a speaker of the House.

Two big steps needed now are the elimination of the open carrying of weapons in the United States and the elimination or rigorous regulation of civilian ownership of military-style firearms.

On Jan. 6, America saw an act of anarchy aimed at stopping lawmakers from doing their jobs. No one can feel confident that our nation won’t see more such attempts, from Washington to state capitals to city halls. Current laws are so lax they essentially give military weapons to terrorists.

On Sunday, the third anniversary of the Parkland school shooting in which 14 students and three staff members were killed and 17 others were wounded, President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban assault weapons. He also has called for background checks for all gun sales, the banning of high-capacity magazines and an end to immunity for gun manufacturers whose products are used to wreak violence.

The need for an assault weapons ban is more obvious than ever. In April, armed protesters, many with assault rifles, entered the Michigan state Capitol to protest COVID-19 restrictions. It was, in retrospect, a kind of dress rehearsal for the Jan. 6 mobbing of the U.S. Capitol. In response, Michigan on Jan. 11 banned the open carrying of firearms at its capitol. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer now wants to ban firearms from the capitol entirely.

It’s the only way lawmakers can feel safe doing their jobs. They should not have to wear bulletproof vests on the statehouse floor.

In 2004, a 1994 federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines was allowed to expire. Meanwhile, over the past year, guns sales have been up across the nation. It is stunning how much firepower is out there. How do we guarantee the continuity of government if lawmakers are told: If you sign on to this bill, we are going to come after you and after your family?

Threats in Illinois

Those who work on gun issues in Illinois say such threats have been made for years. And lawmakers says that sometimes the threats have worked. So do researchers, who say threats of physical harm have been a deterrence to their doing studies on gun violence.

Now in the last few weeks, though, stories of armed protesters outside officials’ homes have come from all over the nation. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said that men armed with assault weapons have stood in front of her house, and she has been threatened with being hanged for treason.

Gun regulations have not kept up with facts on the ground. Videos are circulating on social media that teach how to modify assault weapons to make them fully automatic and how to make hollowed-out bullets that are more damaging to human bodies. There also are videos teaching how to make plastic guns printed on 3-D printers that can’t be spotted by metal detectors and can’t be traced. Homemade “ghost guns” that don’t have serial numbers are proliferating.

Our culture is inundated in ways to get around gun laws.

Better gun laws in Illinois and Chicago

An assault weapon ban won’t stop daily gun violence in our streets, where other firearms typically are used. To address day-to-day violence, we urge the Illinois Legislature to pass the so-called Block Illegal Ownership bill, which would close loopholes in the state’s gun regulations.

We also urge the City of Chicago to rethink what it does when people violate the city’s gun-offender registration ordinance. People convicted of gun-related violence or illegal gun possession are supposed to register their home addresses once a year with the police. But as Frank Main reported in Sunday’s Sun-Times, those who ignore the law are rarely punished. City attorney’s should either get serious about enforcing the law, which is supposed to give police officers a heads-up when they are approaching the home of somebody previously convicted of a gun offense, or quit pretending the ordinance has any practical purpose — and save cops the unnecessary paperwork.

Guns can kill — both people and representative government. We need stronger and better-enforced gun laws as quickly as possible.

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