The new bipartisan gun safety legislation signed by President Biden last month wouldn’t have stopped the Highland Park, Ill., shooter who rained over 83 bullets from an AR-15-style rifle onto people at a Fourth of July parade, killing seven and wounding 47 more — just as the new law did not stop the numerous other shootings that have occurred across the U.S. since. including the recent attack in an Indiana mall, where a shooter fired 24 rounds in just 15 seconds from an AR-15 style rifle, killing three, before he himself was shot by an armed bystander.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good things in the new law — tightened background checks, and funding for “crisis intervention” programs, mental health, and school safety. But nothing in it would have prevented the Highland Park killer — or those in Uvalde, Buffalo or Indiana — from obtaining the weapons that allowed them to slaughter so many. It’s disheartening to say, but there will be another attack someplace soon. And just as inevitably, it will probably involve another killer with an AR-15, high-capacity magazines, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition — all obtained legally. What will Congress do then?
AR-15-style assault rifles equipped with high-capacity magazines have become the weapon of choice for terrorists and other killers for good reason — they can slaughter many in a short amount of time. They allowed the 2019 Dayton shooter — using an AR-15-style rifle with a 100-round magazine — to fire 41 rounds in just 32 seconds, killing nine and injuring another 27. AR-15s can also easily be converted into fully-automatic machine guns — as Stephen Paddock did with a now-illegal “bump-stock” in Las Vegas in 2017, enabling him to fire over 1,000 bullets, killing 58 and wounding hundreds.
While the new law expands background checks, these checks only catch people with criminal records, civil commitment orders, or the handful of other things that will bar a person from owning a firearm. But there are plenty of other dangerous people who will pass a background check. For example, Uvalde suspect Salvador Ramos, a troubled kid with a history of violent threats — but no criminal record — was able to buy two AR-15s, and he would still have been allowed to do so under the new law.
Terrorists also have no problems getting weapons. Buffalo shooting suspect, Peyton Gendron, made no secret of being a racist extremist before buying the AR-15 that police say he used to kill 10 Black shoppers. Same with the white nationalists who massacred scores in El Paso (2019) and Pittsburgh (2018), and the ISIS-inspired killer Omar Mateen, who in 2016 used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 49 and wound 53 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub — the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. These extremists all bought their weapons legally, and still could — even if they ended up on the terrorist watchlist.
As the Supreme Court has emphasized, Second Amendment rights are not absolute. They don’t require such insanity. Just as there’s no First Amendment right to falsely yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, there’s no Second Amendment right for civilians to possess dangerous military-style weapons. Fully-automatic machine gun rifles like the M16s and M4s used by the U.S. military have been heavily restricted for decades, and AR-15s are the civilian version of the M16 — equivalent to the military model in most respects. And in the context of a mass shooting against unarmed civilians without body armor, AR-15s are just as deadly. Even though they are only semi-automatic, they can still be fired at a rate of up to 300 to 500 rounds per minute, and when equipped with a“hellfire” trigger device (which Ramos reportedly had in his possession during the Ulvalde attack), AR-15s can shoot 900 rounds per minute. Terrorists can use these weapons, augmented by high-capacity magazines, to kill large numbers of people long before law enforcement can arrive. And even when they do arrive, officers are often outgunned, as the initial police response to the Uvalde tragedy demonstrated.
AR-15-style weapons need to be treated like their close cousins, the fully-automatic M16, and be severely restricted — as the proposed Assault Weapons Ban Act of 2022, which advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee last week, would do.
We’ve done it before — banning such weapons for 10 years, starting in 1994. California and other states also have gone well beyond federal law by restricting assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition for decades, and as a result, my home state has among the lowest per capita gun violence rates in the nation.
Of course, the Supreme Court’s recent radical right turn on the Second Amendment in its Bruen decision has put many state gun safety laws in jeopardy, including California’s restrictions on carrying weapons in public. In the wake of Bruen, the Supreme Court also recently vacated a Ninth Circuit ruling upholding California’s ban on high-capacity magazines, as well as the Fourth Circuit’s ruling upholding Maryland’s assault weapons ban. But over the last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature are working on updating the state’s laws to deal with the Supreme Court’s unwelcome turn, while still strengthening them to further protect public safety.
These common-sense efforts have become ever more urgent, given the steady rise of political polarization and domestic terrorism. As retired Judge J. Michael Luttig eloquently testified before the Jan. 6 Select Committee, “America is at a perilous crossroads” with our people “at war with each other.” This reality has every possibility of becoming ever more bloody, as we have already seen with the terror attacks in Buffalo and El Paso, and on Jan. 6, where many insurrectionists were armed for combat. The easy availability of AR-15s and high-capacity magazines lies at the heart of this national peril.
For all of its good features, the new gun law does not come close to addressing this clear and present danger to our country. Until our political leaders summon the will to address it head on, more mass violence is inevitable.
Seth Stodder served as assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration, and as director of policy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration. He is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, and teaches counterterrorism law at the University of Southern California Law School.