By Marjorie Pritchard, editorial page deputy managing editor
It’s been almost 30 years since John Rosenthal installed an attention-grabbing, 252- foot-long billboard along the Mass. Pike calling for reforms to the nation’s gun laws. It was a year after the enactment of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the civilian use of 19 specifically named semiautomatic assault weapons, and Rosenthal used his sign over two decades to promote stricter state and national gun laws. He displayed pictures of children who were shot to death, called for universal criminal background checks, and kept a daily tally of the number of Americans killed by guns since the Sandy Hook massacre. The billboard is long gone and so is the assault weapons ban, but Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence and a gun owner himself, is still leading the charge to reduce gun deaths in America without banning most guns.
And he’s had enough. The period between July 1 and 5 saw 26 mass shootings across the country that left at least 24 dead and more than 140 injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. One of the deadliest shootings took place in Philadelphia, when a man armed with an AR-style rifle fired randomly and killed five people. In an op-ed today, Rosenthal calls on Congress to pass a ban on military-style assault weapons. Rosenthal and Globe Opinion reached out to victims of gun violence and their families, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, policy leaders, health care workers, and business people to ask them to join the call for a nationwide ban on military-style assault weapons.
More than 350 people and organizations with thousands of members signed on, imploring “Congress to enact a new national ban on all military-style assault weapons and ammunition magazines greater than five rounds. … It will save lives and will not infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights.”
As we were reaching out to people to join the campaign, Rosenthal told me that the deaths since he first erected that billboard “are hard to process. Over a million dead and literally hundreds of millions of souls impacted… 441 shot and 58 killed in Las Vegas, never mind 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook and 19 [students] at Uvalde and 12 at Aurora. When and how many more need to die before Congress cares and finally replicates our effective Massachusetts gun laws that have successfully reduced the gun death rate by 40 percent since 1994 without banning most guns?”
In a related editorial, the Globe editorial board calls for passage of a sweeping gun safety bill that includes provisions to ban so-called ghost guns, expand the state’s red flag law, and strengthen oversight of gun dealers. The bill looks likely to pass in the House but has yet to move in the Senate. “We cannot look to a dysfunctional Congress to solve the problem of gun violence that cries out for a broader solution,” the board asserts. “And we certainly can’t count on a Supreme Court that walks in lockstep with the gun lobby to protect Massachusetts citizens.”
Don’t let an assault weapon end another life. Ban them.
By John Rosenthal
Gun violence continues to ravage our country, with mass shootings of four or more people daily, and shootings are now the leading cause of death for children in America. Moreover, 2023 is on pace to set a new record for mass shootings and deaths. Last year, there were over 650 mass shootings, and this year there have already been more mass shootings and school shootings than the number of days in the year.
Still, many in Congress remain stubbornly aligned with the largely unregulated gun industry, refusing to take action on civilian access to military style assault weapons, including AR-15 assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines involved in many mass shootings. As law enforcement officers, survivors of gun violence, gun owners, policy makers, public health workers, faith leaders, businesspeople, and union members, we respect and support the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. However, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
Scalia further noted that present-day military-style assault weapons did not exist at the time of the nation’s founding and are not protected by the Second Amendment. He stated that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of firearms.
The public’s access to military-style assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines is deadly to law enforcement officers and the public. While a bullet from a typical handgun is designed to penetrate a person’s soft tissue and lacerate organs, a high-velocity round from a military-style weapon is designed to expand and cause maximum soft tissue and organ damage — often proving fatal and rendering victims, especially children, unrecognizable. These high-powered firearms and military ammunition rounds are also specifically designed to penetrate soft body armor, outgun police officers, and kill as many people as possible without the need to reload. By contrast, typical law enforcement service weapons are handguns with 15-round ammunition magazines, and officers — and those they seek to protect — are placed at great risk when forced to reload.
While easily concealable handguns account for the majority of the average daily 130 fire arm deaths and 150 injuries (including a child shot every 30 minutes and seven killed ev ery day), many mass shootings occur with military-style assault weapons and large- capacity ammunition magazines carrying 30 or more rounds. The semiautomatic AR- 15, which has accounted for millions of gun sales, was modeled after the M4 carbine and the M16, which was intended for use on the battlefield, not America’s streets.
Assault weapons have no useful purpose for hunting or sport. Hunters are required to obtain a state license and the number of rounds they can carry in their hunting rifles is limited. Duck and deer hunters are limited to three and five rounds, respectively, to protect duck and deer populations. Incredibly, when the purpose is to shoot humans and overpower police officers who have 15 rounds before having to reload, there’s no federal law requiring a gun license or a limit on the number of rounds in a magazine.
Law enforcement officials are on the front lines and are routinely outgunned by shooters using military-style weapons. They’re dedicated to serving and protecting the people in their communities. Still, as long as Congress allows access to more powerful handguns and rifles designed for war, without even a criminal background check in 32 states, law enforcement officials’ lives are increasingly at risk. Their hands are tied, limiting their ability to keep citizens safe and stop the mass shootings in their communities.
In 1994, law enforcement — including every major national association representing over 450,000 police officers — led the effort to enact the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Yet Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004, even though during the 10-year ban there was a 66 percent reduction in the use of banned assault weapons at crime scenes, proving that such a ban effectively saved lives and reduced preventable mass shootings — without prohibiting most firearms.
Therefore, we implore Congress to enact a new national ban on all military-style assault weapons and ammunition magazines greater than five rounds. Our nation’s citizens should be provided the same respect and consideration our hunting laws currently provide to protect populations of game animals. It will save lives and will not infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights.