The shooting on 18 May at a school in Santa Fe, Texas, was as awful as its predecessors and, in one respect, worse: the murderer used particular firearms that the law can barely touch. So the shooting is unlikely to provoke action among legislators, and may in fact retard it.
State and federal laws restrict in many ways the private ownership of certain firearms, but the most far-reaching efforts are taken under the umbrella of ‘assault weapons bans’, which exist in a small minority of states and a few localities within states. There, the term ‘assault weapon’ is a creature of the law and defined both by reference to specific firearms (named or excluded by manufacturer and model) and to specific features or accessories which an otherwise unnamed firearm may not legally possess.
The most restrictive regime is in California, but highly restrictive regimes exist also in Cook County, Illinois (where Chicago is located) and the State of New York. At the national level, assault weapons bans are routinely introduced into both houses of Congress, but unenacted; the current bills are respectively S.2095 and H.R.5087. These bills are broadly modelled on the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. All of these efforts, in their way, represent the limits of public acceptance of restrictions on firearms by type or description.
But it’s undeniable that utterly lethal firearms fall well outside the most serious efforts to restrict them. That’s the sad lesson of the Santa Fe shooting.
Neither of the firearms used in this shooting — from what we know — had a semi-automatic action, i.e., neither was capable of performing a full cycle of firing, extracting, ejecting, and rechambering with a single trigger pull, and this fact alone puts them beyond the reach of most ‘assault weapons’ restrictions. One of the reported firearms was a Remington 870 shotgun. Remington does manufacture semi-automatic shotguns, and some of these use detachable magazines that would be illegal to own or transfer in California (Calif. Penal Code § 30515 (a)(7)) or under H.R 5087 (§ 2(a)(1)), but the shotgun used in Santa Fe was (apparently) pump action, i.e. manually operated. Unless it had other prohibited featured, for example a large fixed (internal) magazine or a short barrel (see Calif. Penal Code 33210; Illinois Criminal Code § 24-1(a)(7)(1)), it would probably not fall into a restricted class of firearm. The State of New York even excludes pump-action shotguns from the definition of ‘assault weapon’ (NY Penal Law § 265(22)(g)(i)).
The other recovered firearm was a .38 calibre revolver, though the make and model are as yet unreported. Revolvers are not unregulated (e.g., California requires them to possess certain safety features) but they’re largely passed over in ‘assault weapons’ definitions, for various reasons: they’re not magazine-fed, and so limits on high-capacity magazines are irrelevant; a revolver’s cylinder typically holds only 5 to 7 rounds, so that a revolver requires more frequent reloading; and a typical shooter cannot fire a revolver with the same rapidity as a semi-automatic pistol. And yet a .38 revolver can be horribly lethal. Some enthusiasts dismiss the .38 Special round (the round typically used in these revolvers) as too ineffective for defensive purposes, but the firearms industry has steadily developed more lethal .38 Special rounds by increasing the force of the propellant and altering the shape of the bullet. Also, many revolvers that fire the .38 Special round will also accommodate the truly lethal .357 Magnum round, and even if the firearm is not rated for that more powerful round, an unscrupulous person may still use it.
The law has created (or attempted to create) classes of firearms it regards as particularly lethal. The events in Santa Fe proved that firearms which the law sees, incidentally, as ‘less lethal’, are nothing of the kind. The effect of these events on law reform is easy to predict. On the one hand, a call for wider restrictions by type or description of firearm, and on the other, a rejoinder that all guns are lethal — witness Santa Fe. The lawmakers’ task is now more difficult.