Registering assault weapons would be a good first step to ending the scourge of mass shootings

Already this year there have been 203 mass shootings in America. History shows registration of powerful weapons can be an effective way to save lives.

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On Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul looks at a memorial at the scene of a shooting at a supermarket as she pays respects to the victims of Saturday’s shooting in Buffalo, New York

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President Joe Biden wants to ban military-style assault weapons.

There is a better — as in, politically achievable — way.

Gun safety advocates say calling for a ban is not the most effective way to slow down America’s shocking number of mass shootings, including two last weekend. There have been 203 of those shootings just 4½ months into this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Instead, advocates say that requiring the weapons to be registered is a tactic that — if done correctly — could keep the weapons out of those intent on using them to shoot large numbers of victims before they have a chance to flee. Assault weapons are a type of semi-automatic firearm designed solely to kill humans quickly and efficiently and, according to the Giffords Law Center, more than 85% of fatalities in mass shootings have been caused by assault rifles.



After 10 people were killed and three others were injured in the May 14 mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, Biden renewed his call for banning assault weapons such as the AR-15-type weapon that the 18-year-old suspect obtained legally. And that legal purchase was not unusual. According to a survey by the National Institute of Justice, the research wing of the Justice Department, 77% of mass shooters legally obtained the weapons they used in their crimes.

Analyses all along the political spectrum indicate that a ban is just not in the cards in the current Congress. Even in normal, less divisive times, enacting such a ban wouldn’t be easy. Now, the nation is mired in a cultural war that makes it harder for politicians to cross the aisle on even the most pressing issues.

Requiring registration of assault weapons would be a heavy lift to get through this Congress, too. But, gun safety advocates say, there’s a better chance to enact it into law. California already has a registration law. Nationwide registration would be an easier sell to existing owners of assault weapons than an outright ban. Registration and a significant registration fee would, in a best-case scenario, persuade many gun buyers they really don’t need assault weapons after all.

History shows registration can be effective. The National Firearms Act of 1934, passed into law after the Prohibition-era mob wars, including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, required the registration of machine guns. As a result of the registration fees and required oversight, machine guns have pretty much disappeared from the public sphere.

If a large number of people aren’t buying certain types of guns, manufacturers won’t make them. If manufacturers aren’t making them, the small number of people who want to use them in crimes can’t buy them. As police frequently point out, illegal crime guns start out as legal guns before they get into criminals’ hands.

The difference between a machine gun and an assault rifle is someone firing a machine gun can keep firing by holding down the trigger. An assault weapon requires the trigger to be repeatedly pulled, which reduces the number of bullets that can be fired in a set amount of time.  

Some mass shooters using assault weapons have found ways to alter the weapons so they can shoot more rapidly. That’s why gun safety advocates say the weapons should not be freely available. The Buffalo shooting put the lie to the repeated claim by gun rights advocates that the best answer to a bad gun with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The supermarket had a good guy, an armed security guard, who couldn’t stop the shooter — the suspect was wearing body armor — and was himself killed as well.

A registration law would have to be carefully drawn up. When a 1994 ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines was enacted, it was so loosely written that functional equivalents of assault rifles remained on the market. The 1994 ban expired in 2004.

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There is widespread support for getting assault rifles out of the hands of would-be mass shooters. Many police officers support limiting ownership of assault weapons because bullets fired from the guns can penetrate officers’ bullet-proof vests. Ordinary people are justifiably frightened by the constant number of mass shootings that can happen anywhere.

Illinois doesn’t have to wait for the federal government to act. In one important gun-safety step, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed a ban on “ghost guns,” weapons that individuals assemble themselves to skirt federal laws. Requiring registration of assault rifles in Illinois would be a logical follow-up.

But to make a much bigger difference, a federal registration requirement is needed.

Mass shootings account for only a small percentage of all shootings, but each incident causes many casualties. Greatly limiting ownership of such weapons would make America safer.

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