It’s Time to Ban Assault Rifles

James Shaw Jr. shouldn’t have to be a hero.

He shouldn’t have third-degree burns on his right hand, the skin singed from the hot barrel of the shooter's AR-15. He shouldn’t have had to wrestle an assault weapon from the gunman in the early hours of Sunday morning, with four people already mortally wounded. He shouldn’t have to walk around with memories of his brutal choice: hide in a Waffle House bathroom, or confront someone with a weapon of war who had already gunned down innocent victims.

The survivors of the Waffle House massacre in Antioch are no doubt eternally grateful that Shaw swallowed his fear, disarmed the killer and sent him running naked into the South Nashville night, as are all of us. But it never should have come to that.

The suspect, Travis Reinking, was captured Monday. In July, Reinking showed up on the White House grounds babbling nonsense about being a sovereign citizen — the fever dream of anti-government extremists who declare themselves separate from the laws that you and I are subject to. After that, he never should have been allowed to touch a gun again. When the state of Illinois revoked his license and took away his guns, Reinking’s father never should have been able to give them right back to his son. When Reinking told officials about delusions that Taylor Swift was stalking him, he should have been taken off the streets.

Shaw’s heroism is the kind of story we love, a tale of selflessness in its truest form. But let us not forget that we forced him to be that hero. At every step of the way, our system failed, and Reinking allegedly ended up in the parking lot of a Murfreesboro Pike Waffle House shooting people. What happens next time? What happens when someone like Shaw isn’t there? 

So in the wake of this tragedy, let’s not talk vaguely about things like “mental health,” as the gun lobbyists like to do. We already have checks in place, and they failed. 

For nutjobs like Carol Swain, a conservative pundit and former Vanderbilt professor who’s currently running to be mayor of Nashville, the solution is simple: Arm everyone. “Today’s shooting shows how important it is to have well trained and armed citizens in the community,” Swain said in the wake of the shooting. “If one of the patrons had been armed, the situation may have turned out differently and lives could have been saved.” But that’s not a world most of us want to live in, armed to the teeth and fearing everyone. 

What Swain and other Second Amendment extremists refuse to recognize is that not all guns are the same. If the gunman had been carrying a 9 mm handgun instead of an AR-15, some or all of his victims might be alive. If he had been carrying another gun instead of a weapon specifically designed to kill numerous enemy combatants, the damage would not have been as great.

The ammunition that left the AR-15 on Sunday morning traveled significantly faster than it would have from a handgun. When those bullets ripped through the bodies of Taurean Sanderlin, Joe Perez, DeEbony Groves and Akilah DaSilva, they didn’t cause small wounds; they left huge swaths of carnage. Comparing the relative damage made by an AR-15 to that from a 9 mm handgun, trauma surgeon Peter Rhee described it this way to Wired magazine: “One looks like a grenade went off in there. The other looks like a bad knife cut.”

We haven’t always believed in an unlimited right to bear arms in this country. We haven’t always believed that it’s fine for citizens to possess the tools of a battlefield. Even some of the most conservative legal minds believe we have the right to regulate guns. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, certainly no bleeding heart himself, wrote in the 2008 Heller decision that “we think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ ” The problem here isn’t the Constitution — it’s the gun lobby, which currently owns many of our politicians.

Consider this: Just 67 days before the gunman killed those four people, a man police identified as Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and gunned down 17 people with the same weapon. And just 136 days before that, police say Stephen Paddock used 14 AR-15s to slaughter 58 people and injure hundreds more at a country music concert in Las Vegas. Versions of this weapon have been used to kill the children of Sandy Hook and the patrons of the Pulse nightclub. 

It’s time to do more than start a conversation. It’s time to ask our state and federal legislators why people are allowed to carry weapons of war on our streets. It’s time to hold our politicians to account when they refuse to act on even the smallest of measures, like when a bill to prevent the sale of bump stocks — which make AR-15s even deadlier — couldn’t even get out of a state House committee.

It’s time to stop hoping the next James Shaw Jr. will throw himself in front of a killer with a military-grade gun.

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