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What the Orlando shooting means for a federal assault-weapons ban

The shooting in a gay club in Orlando over the weekend has shone a spotlight on the semi-automatic rifle used in the attacks.

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    A man places a candle at an impromptu memorial set up in Sydney, Australia on Monday, following the Florida mass shooting at the Pulse Orlando nightclub.
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In Orlando’s Pulse nightclub early on Sunday morning, Omar Mateen’s main weapon of choice was a semi-automatic rifle. 

Authorities say that at a gun store in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Mateen bought a Sig Sauer MCX, a weapon originally developed for the US Special forces, along with a 9 mm handgun.

Its role in the attacks is already reviving debates over whether the federal government should institute a ban on what are often called “assault weapons.” 

In an email sent in response to queries from the Christian Science Monitor, Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona who studies gun policy, wrote that she expected the Orlando shootings to mobilize advocates on both sides.  But this time, said Carlson, the LGBT movement may play an unprecedented role.

“The LGBT movement has the kinds of organizational strength, grassroots resonance and political acumen from decades of organizing that the gun control lobby has generally lacked in comparison to the gun rights movement,” she wrote.

Its energy might not just come from those pushing for gun control, she added.  “While the LGBT movement leans left and LGBT organizations generally have strong ties to the Democrat party, there are also groups like the Pink Pistols that frame gun rights as gay rights.”

On Monday, the attorney general of Massachusetts, where most semi-automatic weapons are outlawed, called for a federal ban. So did the editorial board of USA Today. And in interviews, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has taken up the call, saying that a ten-year assault-weapons ban – passed under her husband Bill Clinton’s administration before expiring in 2004 – should be reinstituted.  

In its civilian form, the MCX was introduced in 2015, and bears a close similarity to the better-known AR-15 – in fact, police in Orlando originally misidentified the weapon as an AR-15, one of the weapons banned under the 1994 law. 

Studies from institutions like the Department of Justice have cast doubt on how meaningful the ban proved to be in restricting access to similarly high-powered weapons.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland who studies gun policy, said the 1994 law was “pretty narrowly drawn.”

“One of the things that the manufacturers did after it passed was to make slight modifications to guns that wouldn’t have been legal, in order to make them legal,” said Spitzer.

But he noted that the law also made it illegal to own magazines with more than 10 cartridges, in contrast to the 30-round magazine the ATF says was used by Mateen. Under the old law, “he probably could’ve gotten something approximating what he used, but it wouldn’t have had quite the same firepower.”

Since the bill’s passage, public attitudes toward assault-weapon bans have drifted away from support for such measures. In December 2015, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 45 percent of the public supported the idea. That’s compared to 80 percent in 1994. And 53 percent of those polled in 2015 said that they outright opposed the ban – the highest percentage yet recorded. 

Other polls offer somewhat different results: one published in June 2015 by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in the wake of the Sandy Hook attacks, found that support for banning assault weapons was at 63 percent.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is often cited as an influencer of opinion, for its outsized influence on gun policy more generally.  Indeed, its political spending dwarfs that of gun-control advocates, as the Sunlight Foundation noted in 2012.

But Carlson, the University of Arizona sociologist, said that the divergent responses were partly a matter of how the question was framed.  After Sandy Hook, the issue was more about mental health, compared to San Bernardino, which engaged fears about terrorism. 

But she added that that the public had indeed become “less supportive since 1994 of an assault-weapons ban.” That shift, she added, reflected attitudes toward gun control among the public as a whole, with the exception of liberal democrats and people with post-graduate degrees.

“Americans now feel that guns make them safer, whereas only 10-15 years ago, they saw guns as making them less safe.”

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