“WE’RE UNDER fire, we’re under fire. He’s got an automatic weapon,” was the report Saturday morning from one of the first police officers to respond to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Minutes later, another officer radioed, “We’re taking on AK-47 fire from out the front of the synagogue.” Before the gunman was captured, four police officers were wounded and 11 people had been shot to death.
Once again, a piece of America had been turned into a war zone. Once again, the casualties were innocent people engaged in the rhythms of everyday life — this time, mostly elderly people practicing their religion. Once again, the question must be asked of what it will take — how many more mass shootings, lost lives and devastated communities — before Congress enacts sensible gun control that includes banning weapons designed for war.
According to authorities, the accused murderer in Saturday’s shooting — a 46-year-old man who reportedly proclaimed he wanted “all Jews to die” — was armed with three handguns and an AR-15, all of which he legally owned. The AR-15 or a variation of it has been used in other terrible, tragic mass shootings: in February at a high school in Parkland, Fla. (17 dead and 17 injured); in 2017 at a Las Vegas music concert (58 dead, hundreds injured); in 2016 at a nightclub in Florida (49 dead, 53 injured); in 2012 at a movie theater in Colorado (12 dead, 58 injured) and in 2012 at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. (26 dead, two injured).
Assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines are the weapon of choice of mass murderers precisely because of their capability to kill the most people in the shortest time. Mass shootings account for a minority of gun fatalities, but the use of assault weapons greatly increases the rates of death and injury as well as the severity of injuries. As was vividly underscored by Saturday’s events, the risk they pose to law enforcement is great and should give lie to those who think the solution to gun violence is even more guns.
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support laws prohibiting assault weapons. Significant numbers of gun owners — 48 percent, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll — also support a ban on assault-style weapons. The previous national ban on assault weapons, enacted by Congress in 1994 but allowed to expire in 2004, showed a decrease in the use of assault weapons in crime. Gun policy experts asked by the New York Times to rate the effectiveness of policy changes to prevent mass shootings gave their highest ratings to a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The slaughter of little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School should have been enough to persuade Congress to ban assault weapons and enact other common-sense measures. That it wasn’t is both tragedy and disgrace. The carnage that has followed — the Tree of Life shooting being the most recent — has unfortunately failed to stiffen the spines of national lawmakers. But voters next week will have the chance to send their own message. They should elect a Congress that will protect them by enacting long-overdue gun reform that includes getting weapons of war off America’s streets and out of its schools, theaters, churches and synagogues.