The reality that weapons not included in proposed assault-rifle bans can still exact a double-digit death toll further complicates a wrenching national debate about how to prevent future tragedies.
“That’s true” that weapons other than assault rifles can kill many people at once, conceded Avery W. Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which favors a federal ban on assault rifles but not on shotguns or pistols.
Gardiner added, however, that “the reason most mass shootings are conducted with assault weapons is that shooters know full well what weapon to select, if they want to kill the most amount of people in the shortest amount of time possible, and that’s an AR-15-style gun with a large-capacity magazine. If this shooter had had one of those, quite likely there would have been more deaths and injuries. But we don’t know.”
In the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the gunman used an AR-15 to kill 17 people. President Trump, who once supported an assault-weapons ban but campaigned as a Second Amendment champion, called for raising the minimum age to purchase such weapons to 21 after the Parkland shooting. He subsequently softened his position, directing a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to merely “study and make recommendations” on “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases.”
Scott Pearson, father of a Santa Fe High football player, suggested Friday’s wretched result would have been the same, regardless of weapon.
“You can do this with anything,” said Pearson, who sometimes drove the alleged shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, home from practice. “Almost everybody has a pistol or a shotgun for protection.”
There are more registered weapons in Texas than in any other state, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, though some smaller states have more guns per capita.
Opponents of gun-control measures contend the Sante Fe shooting exposes the futility of laws to restrict firearms ownership.
“When used at closer ranges, the average bird-hunting shotgun is actually more deadly than the much-vilified AR-15,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights. “Banning AR-15s will do nothing to stop disturbed and deranged shooters.”
The argument for a shotgun being deadlier is that a single round can spray a target with multiple pellets; one trigger pull on an assault rifle fires a lone bullet.
“I think human history shows that evil people use whatever resources are available to do awful things,” added Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition. “There’s enough information available in a Google search to plan ways to kill hundreds or thousands of people at a time, but we can’t ban knowledge.”
Gun-control advocates counter that laws should not be based on any single incident — that the fact that an assault-rifle ban wouldn't have thwarted the Santa Fe suspect should not resign the country to the inevitability of more shootings.
“Of course there is no single law that will prevent all gun violence, but there are common-sense solutions that are proven to work, like requiring a criminal-background check on every gun sale and ensuring that adults store firearms responsibly,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “But, in order to enact these lifesaving policies that the vast majority of Americans support, we first need to elect leaders who are willing to stand up to the NRA.”
More comprehensive background checks would not have impeded Pagourtzis, who did not purchase the guns he used. Authorities said the guns belonged to Pagourtzis’s father, who owned them legally.
The National Rifle Association declined to comment for this article, but the group’s spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, said Friday on NRATV that “there is not a single firearm law that would have prevented any of this.”
“Nothing would have prevented this, and it’s sad to realize that,” Loesch added, dismissing calls for new gun-control laws. “It’s sad to acknowledge it.”
“When we think about the gun-violence epidemic, we can’t think just about laws,” Gardiner said. “We also have to think about changing social norms and behaviors. This is not simply a problem of having the wrong laws on the books — although that’s a big part of the problem — it’s also making sure that those people who choose to be gun owners store their weapons securely.”
Brittney Martin contributed reporting from Santa Fe.