The Ethical Spectacle March 1995 (

The Voices of Semiautomatics

This week, a man murdered two receptionists in abortion clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts and wounded several other people, usong a semiautomatic rifle. A day later, he was arrested when he fired shots into a third clinic in Virginia. Before the third attack, the police knew who he was: he had dropped a duffle bag in Brookline containing a receipt from a New Hampshire gunshop.

Last issue, we examined the logic and morality behind the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Let's talk now about semiautomatic weapons in particular.

Defining our terms, a semiautomatic weapon can fire rounds very rapidly with multiple squeezes of the trigger, while a fully automatic weapon such as a machine gun fires multiple rounds with one squeeze of the trigger.

Most Americans seem to want semiautomatic weapons banned, and the President and Congress have danced around this issue, banning some imported weapons while allowing their domestic equivalents to be sold, or outlawing certain named weapons while allowing other similar ones to exist. All attempts at regulation have, of course, grandfathered existing weapons in private hands.

The weapon the Brookline killer used was a semiautomatic .22 rifle, legally purchased from a local gun store.

In interviews with neighbors, acquaintances and his employer, the killer was described as unbalanced, strange, withdrawn, violent in his behavior, with a tendency to stare at people in a way that frightened them (New York Times, January 1, 1995.)

Yet this man was able to walk into a store and purchase a weapon that has no real utility other than the shooting of a maximum number of people in a short time.

In recent years, legally purchased semiautomatic weapons have also been used to murder Cambodian immigrant schoolchildren in a California schoolyard; students at a Berkshire, Massachusetts college; and the riders on the Long Island Railroad train in New York. Most of the perpetrators were strange, belligerent people; it is hard to imagine that, while purchasing their weapons, they were able to give the salespeople the impression that they were stable, comfortable hobbyists.

Of course, other than an arrest record disclosed during a background check, carried out during a federally imposed waiting period, what right (or desire) would a salesperson have to refuse the sale of a gun? Don't even expect salespeople not to sell guns to the strange, withdrawn or pugnacious; that would impose on them the responsibility of being legislators or policemen in areas of responsibility that society has abdicated.

Do they feel guilt? Has anyone closed a gun store, or stopped carrying any type of legal weapon, because they sold to a murderer? Some people are capable of feeling guilt about legal actions, just as a very few doctors in Germany refused participation in the euthanasia program; but, for the most part, the law, by permitting the sale, gives them an excuse to disclaim any moral responsibility.

In the future, when you read a news account of a mass murder by semiautomatic weapon--a killer who walks into a public place, such as a schoolyard, fast food franchise, campus, law office, or train, and kills people--look down in the tenth or twentieth paragraph of the newspaper article. You will certainly find somewhere the information that the gun was purchased in a store.

This is very thought-provoking. We all know the famous NRA bumper sticker that "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." One interpretation of this is as follows: They get theirs illegally; we buy ours legally for self-defense; when you take ours away, they will still have theirs.

But where are the smuggled guns, or those manufactured in secret underground gun factories? Most of the murder in our cities seems to take place with guns that were legally purchased somewhere, by somebody, before passing into criminal hands. It is well-documented now that Northern gang members make trips to the South to buy guns and bring them back. The gun used to kill the Mexican presidential candidate this year began its odyssey in a California gun shop. The rifle Lee Harvey Oswald used to kill President Kennedy he ordered from an advertisement in the NRA's Rifleman magazine.

Unlike drug dealers and gang members, who have extensive experience with firearms, none of the mass murderers cited above had prior records of gun violence. Each seems to have purchased his arsenal with the specific intention to use it in the particular act of mass murder later committed. Each was apparently mentally ill; none was a career criminal with access to any underground source of guns or ammunition. Simply put, if each of these individuals had not had the ability to purchase a semiautomatic weapon in a gun store, it would have been hard for them to shoot as many people as they did.

When I discussed this idea with a young coworker of mine, he remembered a remark made by one of his college professors. It is worth quoting because it is fairly typical of the level of the gun control debate, and contains some interesting subtexts:

"Let's walk over to the women's dorm with two guns. You take a semiautomatic, and I'll carry my old shotgun. I bet I kill more people with my shotgun than you do with your semiautomatic."

Let's note the gratuitous hostility to women and move on. This is an example of a pathological statement masquerading as moral argument. Last issue, I asked why, if the right to bear arms is absolute, I cannot legally own a shoulder-fired SAM missile. To follow the professor's logic, since I could also take out an airplane with a well-fired blast from his old shotgun, my SAM should be legal (I only want to treasure it as a collector's item and use it for occasional target practice.) The Long Island Railroad killer might also have run amok with a knife, if the law had denied him a gun, or he might have used an ordinary psitol if unable to buy a semiautomatic. He probably would not have killed as many people, in either case. But suppose, through an unusually deft and rapid use of the knife, or the firing of two pistols simultaneously, he had managed to? How do we reason from this to a conclusion that the more lethal weapons should be legal? Knives are sold for other legitimate purposes, such as food preparation; shotguns are used for hunting; and conventional handguns have some legitimate justification for self-defense, aside from the fact that they are probably protected by the Second Amendment. But the Constitution clearly allows us to draw the line, somewhere between a handgun and a SAM, and there is no other use for a semiautomatic weapon than mass murder.

A couple of weeks after this was written, a Michigan auto worker used another legally purchased semiautomatic weapon to shoot his estranged wife and kill her boyfriend and himself in their common workplace (Austin American Statesman for January 8).