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Jon Meacham, a gun owner, on restoring the assault weapons ban

First, some personal history.  I am a southerner who grew up with and around guns.  I own some still. My father gave me a .22 rifle when I was 9 and a single barrel .410 shotgun when I was 10.  I have inherited many of my family’s guns, including a rifle made by my great, great, great grandfather, which I will preserve and give to my son. One of the central memories of my childhood is of hunting — not well; I am a terrible shot — quail and dove and grouse on a farm on the Tennessee River.

Tragically, my mind has all too frequent occasion to return to that time and that place, to the smells of cordite and of home. Whenever there is news of a terrible shooting, I wonder why America has so miserably failed to enact even common-sense gun legislation. I am not advocating a total ban, even on handguns. But I am embarrassed and ashamed that so many Second Amendment true believers are unable to make sound distinctions between sporting arms that tend to be used responsibly and the vicious, unnecessary machinery of human death like that allegedly wielded by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson.

This is the type of gun that the shooter in Arizona is charged with using — a Glock 9 mm with an expanded clip that holds 33 rounds. What on earth could such a thing be good for except for rapidly ending as many human lives in as short a space of time as possible?

Congress banned such clips in 1994 under President Clinton; in 2004, under the second President Bush, they were allowed back on the legal U.S. market. So were other assault weapons banned for the previous decade. Of course the alleged murderer in Tucson was by all accounts mentally ill and susceptible to substance abuse. Could he have put his hands on this kind of Glock and this kind of clip illegally? Sure he could have. But he didn’t have to.

Here the system, such as it is, failed on two counts. First, there should be, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed, a strengthening of regulations that keep those with certain kinds of mental health and substance abuse records from being able to purchase firearms for a given period of time. We cannot control the dark meanderings of every disturbed person in America. But we can make relevant facts already in the public record available to gun sellers.

And we should not be allowing the sale of clips like this. The power of the gun lobby is such that the issues surrounding guns and ammunition have been notably absent from broad debate for 15 years or so. Politicians — including many Democratic ones — linked the 1994 Republican landslide to the passage of the assault weapons ban and decided, “never again.”

How about applying that steely resolve to something other than electoral survival — like, say, the survival of 9-year-old girls and federal judges and congressional aides who are in a Safeway parking lot on a Saturday morning?

Now Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Frank Lautenberg are sponsoring legislation to restore the ban on such weapons. The argument from Second Amendment purists that such things will then only find their way to the black market is unconvincing. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. A ban on these clips would mark a step toward bringing order out of the chaos of the Tucson tragedy.

The bringing-about of order is the first and fundamental task of government. We accept limits on our rights for the sake of a larger social compact all the time. This pistol with this high-capacity clip is a tool of destruction. I say this as someone who does not want to give up my own guns — but who believes that with rights come responsibilities. Yes, liberty is precious. But so is life. It should not be so difficult for men and women of good will and good heart and sound mind to find the right balance between the two.

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