Armed second amendment activists prepare to march through Olmos Park and to the front door of its City Hall to demand the resignation of Police Chief Rene Valenciano.
Armed second amendment activists prepare to march through Olmos Park in April 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a resident of San Antonio, Texas, I am calling on my elected representatives and fellow citizens to minimize the mass shooting deaths that have become too frequent across our country, particularly in Texas.  

We had another mass shooting in West Texas recently, less than a month after a hate-filled shooter used an AK-type, semi-automatic rifle to target Mexicans in an El Paso Walmart, killing more than 20 people.  This time, in the Midland-Odessa area, the perpetrator used an AR-type, semi-automatic rifle to shoot more than 20 people, including a fifteen-year-old girl and a toddler. Near San Antonio in 2017, the Sutherland Springs shooter used a similar AR-type rifle to kill 26 people in a place of worship. 

As Texans and Americans, we can be satisfied with changes to laws concerning simpler weapons, but only if we ban semi-automatic, military-style rifles as a necessary condition to fully minimize mass shooting deaths.

During mass shootings, however rare they may be, the real multiplier of deaths is the rate of fire available to the shooters, no matter how they came to acquire weapons. Up to 88 percent of mass shooters chose to use semi-automatic weapons of some type. Here is the continuing danger: we can expect more mass shootings and do not need to quibble about what constitutes an “assault weapon” or how effective the partial and diluted “assault weapons ban” that expired in 2004 may have been. If the most egregious shooters had been forced to rely on simpler weapons, then there would have been fewer deaths before someone responded.

From mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland and many similar tragedies, we can expect the backgrounds and motivations of future perpetrators to be similarly diverse.  Some shooters will be mentally ill, others with grievances, others suicidal or murderous zealots, some ideological and some not, although nearly all will be fueled by hate.  

Rather than hope to predict exactly who will perpetrate future mass shootings, we should redouble our preventive efforts.  First, we must reject and condemn the hateful and intolerant rhetoric that seeks to demonize or dehumanize the “other.” We should find and elect new leaders who show respect for and consideration of others, not just in spite of, but also because of, our differences. As a society, compassion and tolerance are what we need to starve the growth of hate that has spawned so many mass shootings.

We need universal background checks to prevent high-risk individuals from purchasing firearms. It is not enough that only federally licensed firearms sellers must run an FBI background check using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  Instead, this kind of screening should be required for every firearms sale or transfer, whether commercial or private, even among family and friends – otherwise we leave a gaping hole in our defenses against future mass shootings.  

We need gun licenses that are based on education and training, so that we can verify safety, competence and understanding of regulatory requirements, and we need mandatory weapons registrations and at least one courtesy inspection by the local sheriff or police department to verify proper storage of those weapons.  We need new red flag laws to help account for the changes over time that intermittent intervention points can never fully capture.

Such steps would have healthy side-effects:  they would not only cut down on firearms accidents, but also help to reduce suicides by making immediate access to weapons more difficult for those who would harm themselves.  Rather than make continued sacrifices to keep private firearms as unregulated as possible, let’s give greater deference to our fundamental right to life, for ourselves and those around us.

There is no utilitarian reason to justify continued ownership of semi-automatic, military-style rifles.  While hunting with my friends and family as a teenager in rural Arizona in the 1980s, I learned that carrying a semi-automatic rifle suggests poor marksmanship – good hunters should not expect to take more than one aimed shot, after which an animal will be bounding and more difficult to hit.  

Likewise, the disciplined hunter or the person serious about self-defense can practice marksmanship to reliably hit a target or stop an attacker with lower chances of collateral damage.  Self-defense rarely involves shooting many people at once, particularly over long distances – indeed, we as a society need to get rid of exactly that capacity.  

Today, given the crisis of mass shootings in this country, it would be better to re-anchor our society’s capacity for hunting, target practice, and self-defense on simpler firearms with lower rates of fire, leaving semi-automatic and automatic rates of fire to our police and military.  This, without an uncompromising defense of privately-held weapons of war, would represent a nobler mission of the National Rifle Association, to which I belonged in the 1980s.

Our U.S. Supreme Court holds that our U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual right to own and use firearms, but this right is not absolute. The landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision (2008) protects guns in “common use at the time,” but not those that are “dangerous and unusual,” while observing that “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”  For self-defense, Heller protects semi-automatic handguns, as well as simpler firearms.  

Heller protections are far more tenuous, even doubtful, concerning much more lethal AR-type and AK-type rifles, such as those used in El Paso, Midland-Odessa, Sutherland Springs, and elsewhere, which have proliferated by aggressive marketing since the “assault weapons ban” expired in 2004.  They represent semi-automatic, or “rate of trigger pull,” cousins of the automatic M16 and AK-47 infantry rifles that our own soldiers and their communist enemies used to fight the Vietnam War.  Designed for optimally efficient battlefield killing, these semi-automatic AR-type rifles are arguably as lethal as the M16 itself – in “basic rifle marksmanship,” the U.S. Army long trained its soldiers, including me, to keep that rifle in semi-automatic mode to enable well-aimed shots as fast as possible, for as long as possible.  Thus, AR-type and AK-type rifles can be best categorized as weapons of war.

It is not enough that Colt, the manufacturer of the AR-15, announced on Sept. 19 that it would suspend production of that semi-automatic, military-style rifle because of “adequate [market] supply” and “excess manufacturing capacity,” even if other manufacturers would likewise halt production of their own AR-type rifles for these or other reasons. Colt can choose to reverse its voluntary decision at any time, as can other manufacturers who help to supply AR-type rifles in dozens of models to the civilian market. 

Legislation is needed to ban the manufacture, sale, transfer and possession of these rifles and it should be coupled with a mandatory buy-back program, universal background checks, new red flag laws, and other preventive measures.  

Semi-automatic, military-style rifles have become more common since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and so have mass shootings perpetrated with them.  We were mistaken to let that mild and beneficial legislation lapse, yet the logic of favorable court rulings to support renewed or complete bans on such rifles as simply too dangerous weapons of war is clear and grows more compelling with every mass shooting.

This is no mere polemic – I and like-minded individuals will vote against leaders who fail to support real action now, including a renewal of the already constitutionally vetted assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, or a new and complete ban on semi-automatic, military-style rifles.  We may have had our differences about policies in Texas and elsewhere, but real action that saves American lives is not “partisan” at all. My elected representatives, who are all Republicans and to whom I have already written, remain largely silent on gun control, or advocate less than universal background checks, improved enforcement of existing laws, or strengthening our mental health system.  

Machiavellian electoral calculations may encourage continued trading of lives to shield semi-automatic weapons of war in Texas and elsewhere, but I am encouraged by the Democratic field’s comments on gun control during the recent debate in Houston, Texas, and I commend former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s forthright call to ban AR-type and AK-type rifles in particular. Gun violence will no doubt continue, but we can rid ourselves of these rapid-firing tools of mass shooters, these multipliers of lethality, these weapons of war for which we have neither real use, nor constitutional guarantee.  Let us not only condemn the hateful intolerance that produces mass shooters, but let us also save as many lives as possible by banning semi-automatic, military-style rifles. Together, we have a moral imperative to minimize loss of life and we can make this happen while respecting constitutional rights.

John Michael Hawkins

John Michael Hawkins is a retired lieutenant colonel, United States Army, and lives in San Antonio, Texas. Raised in rural Arizona, he is a graduate of West Point and holds a doctorate in history from...