Chris Powell: Political sanctimony won't solve gun-violence challenge

An AR-15, which was easily bought by Nikolas Cruz at a gun store and then used to murder 17 people at a Florida school.

An AR-15, which was easily bought by Nikolas Cruz at a gun store and then used to murder 17 people at a Florida school.

Estimates are that 300 million guns are in private possession in the United States, 55 million Americans own guns, and that at any particular moment about 20 percent of the population is suffering some form of mental illness.

So the remarkable thing may be not that the country has mass shootings every week but that there aren't several every hour and that anyone lives beyond age 40, especially as the political atmosphere has become stifling with sanctimony about guns.

The country sure does have a gun violence problem. But the rhetoric about it often lacks much relevance.

The bodies hadn't even been hauled away from the high school massacre in Florida last week before Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy was pacing the Senate floor denouncing Congress for having done nothing about guns. Gov. Dannel Malloy, whose administration gave early release to convict Frankie "The Razor" Resto, who quickly went on to murder a store owner in Meriden, angrily accused Republican congressmen of having blood on their hands. 

As is often the case, the problem with the quick denunciations arising from the Florida massacre is that none of the common prescriptions for diminishing gun violence would have made any difference.

More background checks? Desirable as they are, the perpetrator in Florida had no criminal record and his rifle was legally purchased at a gun shop. No "gun show sales loophole" was involved.

More mental-health appropriations? These would be helpful. But while many of the perpetrator's acquaintances regarded him as troubled and he had been expelled from high school because of misconduct, he rejected treatment.

Limit the capacity of gun magazines? This is trivial, since plenty of damage can be done whatever the magazine size and empty magazines are quickly replaced with loaded ones. 

Outlaw "assault weapons"? This usually means any rifle that just looks scary. But the only thing that matters about a gun is not its appearance but its mode of firing, and there are only three kinds of guns. 

There are fully automatic guns, semi-automatic guns and single-shot or double-shot guns The first kind reloads automatically and permits multiple rounds to be fired with a single squeeze of the trigger. The second kind also reloads automatically but requires individual trigger pulls for the discharge of each bullet. The third kind requires reloading for every one or two discharges.

Fully automatic guns are tightly regulated by the federal government and are not widely in public possession. Most modern guns are semi-automatic, as the Florida perpetrator's was. Outlawing them means outlawing most modern rifles and pistols -- that is, outlawing most of the guns held by the public -- and limiting public ownership to shotguns, bolt-loading guns, and derringers. 

If outlawing most guns is what the advocates of more restrictions want, they should be honest about it -- and they will need luck with confiscation. After all, when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns -- along with President Trump, that paragon of mental stability who also controls the country’s nuclear arsenal.

So unless the country chooses gun confiscation, it may be stuck with the public identification and preventive detention of the mentally ill and more armed security for its many soft targets like schools, theaters, and nightclubs.

Where 20 percent of the population is armed and another 20 percent is psychotic, inevitably there will be some overlap, against which the usual political sanctimony will be no defense.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.,  and a frequent contributor.