Everyone is sick right now. There's only one thing it seems we can all agree on, which is that we can abide the massacre of children neither in conscience nor gut. It's an unfortunate truth that what transpired on Friday in Newtown was different in degree rather than in kind, but the degree seems to matter this time.
Even more unfortunate is that this heightened arousal doesn't really seem to be leading to many cogent answers to the question, "How do we prevent this from happening again?"
One thing that won't prevent massacres like this from happening again is re-instating the nationwide assault weapons ban. I know that many of you reading this will have a problem with this statement. For some of you, it's because you simply have a normative preference for banning most or all guns. If that's how you feel, I don't expect to change your mind. What I want to do is dispense with the notion that re-enacting such a law has anything to do with preventing school massacres. If you just want to ban guns, you still probably will, but I'm banking on at least some of you actually desiring to improve the life expectancy of children in active shooter situations.
First of all, let's address the thorny and oxymoronic notion of "assault weapons." Unfortunately, it's a somewhat arbitrary distinction in civilian life and law that amounts to making hay over styling rather than firepower. If you really care about regulating firepower, that last sentence should have piqued your interest.
On what basis do I make this claim? Because I live in California, where we have an assault weapons ban that was modeled on the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Like the FAWB, California law bans certain rifles based on their styling and furniture rather than their firepower. In my state, AR and AK type rifles are banned explicitly by blacklist. However, this approach doesn't work very well because it's too difficult to keep up with changes in manufacture when the law requires that weapons are banned by specific make and model. All this really does is punish popular manufacturers and push money into the hands of competitors who haven't been banned.
However, even if it did effectively ban all AR and AK type rifles, it still wouldn't help to regulate firepower. This is an AR-15 rifle:
The AR-15 was based on the M-16 rifle. They're basically the same except for one key difference: the M-16 is capable of fully automatic fire, meaning that the gun will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held and the magazine is not empty. The AR-15 is semi-automatic, which means that only one round can be fired per trigger pull. Under current California law, this rifle is not legal to purchase or possess (unless you got grandfathered in, which will happen in the case of any future ban).
This is the Ruger Mini-14:
This weapon has never been banned in California. Like the AR-15, it is semi-automatic with detachable magazine. It is also chambered to fire the exact same round, the Remington .223 (or sometimes the NATO 5.56mm, which is identical for the purpose of this discussion). This one doesn't look like a modern military rifle, though history buffs will probably note the similarity it bears to the M1 carbine used in WWII.
California law says this rifle is okay because it's not an AR or AK type and because it doesn't have a pistol grip. That's it. The law bans the pistol grip. This rifle can fire the same round with the same magazine capacity. Fun fact: the Federal AWB wouldn't even have banned the pistol grip, since it allowed one "evil feature."
Everyone got that? Ruger's Mini-14 (or their Mini-30 if you prefer 7.62mm, which is what the AK-47 fires) is not considered an assault weapon because it doesn't look scary. Never mind that it packs the same punch. The ban is purely on weapon styling and furniture and has nothing to do with the actual function of the weapon - not the type of round it shoots, not the type of action it has, not the rate of fire... nothing.
Feinstein's ban is likely to have the same architecture as the last ban, which was found to have no significant impact on violent crime by the CDC and NRC. The bans in California have done nothing but shift purchasing to off-list manufacturers. AR-15's are available off the shelf with the Bullet Button. High capacity magazines are illegal to purchase or manufacture here, but not illegal to possess. Californians who want them simply travel to Nevada or buy re-furbishing kits that skirt the law. Anyone who gets caught with one can simply deploy the "found in the woods" defense. It's almost impossible to prove someone actually bought one and brought it over state lines.
If you think gun control is the answer, this should trouble you deeply. You should find no comfort in the notion of renewing the federal ban, regardless of whether or not you simply prefer that outcome. In fact, the mere discussion of renewing the ban will almost certainly increase gun sales, especially of AR-15 rifles, despite having little chance of passing the House. Meanwhile, AR-15 rifles have already been in short supply after Obama's re-election. Panic buying will certainly increase now.
Here are some more troubling facts. Despite numerous descriptions of the AR-15 as "high-powered," it's actually not. Here's a comparison of rifle cartridges:
Second from the right is the 5.56mm NATO round, which is almost identical to the .223 Remington that most civilian AR-15's are chambered for. The round on the far right is the .22LR or Long Rifle, which is the smallest common rifle round. The .223 is only slightly wider in diameter, and though it is significantly more massive and travels at a much higher velocity, thus increasing kinetic energy both linearly and exponentially, it is still one of the smallest common rifle rounds. It's much smaller than the common hunting rounds found second and third from the left.
So you don't need a "high-powered" rifle to kill lots of people. As we learned from incidents like the Virginia Tech and Tucson massacres, you don't even need a rifle. They're sufficient, but not necessary. At Virginia Tech, only pistols were used. At that, they weren't particularly "high-powered" either. Here's a similar comparison of pistol cartridges:
Only the two smallest cartridges pictured here, the 9mm and the .22, were used. This "high-powered" stuff obscures a truth that shooters know: shot placement, particularly the ability to successively place accurate follow-up shots, matters far more than "stopping power," particularly when you're shooting at targets than aren't shooting back. Lanza was apparently triple-tapping his victims to ensure that even those that played dead would not survive. If the shooter is following this protocol, it doesn't really matter if he doesn't have a magnum round or even a .45 ACP.
What about high-capacity magazines? Loughner used one in Tucson, and arguably to great effect. James Holmes attempted to use one in Aurora, though it's unclear how much it really helped. Like most after-market high-capacity magazines, it proved unreliable. He probably would have done more damage with a bag of standard magazines. After all, that's all that were used at Virginia Tech.
So you don't need a high-powered rifle or pistol to kill lots of people. You don't even really need high-capacity magazines. In fact, the worst school massacre in US history was carried out with explosives. It's worth remembering that Harris and Klebold brought almost 100 improvised bombs with them to Columbine. James Holmes certainly learned how to make explosives.
Hopefully some of this is starting to illustrate why simply renewing the AWB won't prevent any future massacres. The AWB was in place when Columbine happened. It wouldn't have stopped Virginia Tech. It might have marginally limited Jared Loughner's destructive capability if you think that a 33-round magazine really gives a shooter much more capability than a 17-round magazine, which is standard on a 9mm Glock. James Holmes had plenty of other weapons and explosives. The AWB would not have prevented anything that occurred at Virginia Tech, since the shooter used pistols and even restricted size magazines for his Glock. He just carried lots of extras.
And that's all it takes to kill lots of people. Well, that and a plan that involves knowing no one will shoot back until you've had your way.
I'm really kind of sad about this whole thing. Liberals and assorted lefties usually have the high-ground when it comes to basing their positions on the facts, but firearms issues typically betray their fear and attendant ignorance of guns. Most people who hate guns know frightfully little about how they actually work. If liberals want to write gun control laws that actually work - as in actually result in the net prevention of harm rather than confirming stereotypes about being ignorant and reactionary - they need to deign to become a little more informed about a pervasive reality, which is that the firearm is the standard force multiplier on planet Earth right now.
I'm in support of good gun control. I don't support the Californication of gun laws because they simply don't work. The Federal AWB didn't significantly reduce violent crime nationwide, which was already falling and continues to fall even in the era of widespread gun ownership and increasing concealed carry. Those are the facts. Renewing it now won't stop another school massacre. What it will do is increase panic buying of weapons and confirm paranoia about liberal gun-grabbers.
If you're truly interested in a harm reduction strategy, I hope you can recognize that this isn't it. Any new gun control regime that hopes to actually reduce violent crime needs to go much, much further than the AWB. In order to prevent another school massacre, that regime would need to significantly reduce the risk that young, mentally unstable men can get their hands on an "assault weapon," which should be understood in civilian terms as basically any weapon that can be used to carry out an attack of this nature. Hopefully, I've made it clear that means basically any firearm. This standard is much, much lower than murky notions of "assault weapons" have previously allowed.
But let's not pretend that simply renewing the AWB will mitigate future attacks. If you honestly care about protecting children from future attacks, it's time to go back to the drawing board.