Here's a challenge for those of you who don't think we need to do anything about assault weapons: Take a moment and imagine, if you possibly can, what the final moments must have been like for the children. Twelve girls. Eight boys. All just 6 or 7 years old. So sweet, so innocent, so trusting until the very end. Imagine, if you can, the confusion and terror. The panic. The screams. And in the silent aftermath, as the smoke lifted and the blood ran cold, imagine, if you can, what it must have been like for the parents. The primal fear and anguish that only a mother or father can truly understand, the grief that will never cease. Ask any parent who has had to bury a child: Such wounds are never healed by the passage of time. Never.
If you're still comfortable with your position on assault weapons, if you don't think we can do any better, God help you.
It's true that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., could have happened anywhere in the world. But this is also true: Of the 20 worst mass shootings in the world over the past half-century, 11 of them — 55 percent — have occurred on the soil of just one country: Ours. America, an exceptional nation? Sadly, it sure is.
And, of course, we mustn't discuss this, for that would be politicizing tragedy. Let things settle down. The Twitter account of the National Rifle Association (@NRA) has been silent since Friday. No condolences, not a word.
Perhaps this also explains why when NBC's Meet the Press contacted all 31 pro-gun-rights members of the new Senate and invited them to come on the show Sunday to share their views, there were no takers. Not one. Since when did John McCain and Lindsey Graham suddenly become media shy? A tragedy they feel they can exploit for political points — say, Benghazi — and they rush to the cameras, foaming with indignation. But one that reflects badly upon a political ally and a source of campaign donations, and they come down with laryngitis.
Republicans, at least some of them, used to have the courage and honesty to speak out against assault weapons. The most prominent example, ironically, is the one man today's GOP claims to revere above all: Ronald Reagan.
In May 1994, the former president joined Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to support a ban on the future manufacture, sale, and possession of assault weapons. In a letter to the House of Representatives, the three leaders said: "This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety… Although assault weapons account for less than 1 percent of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10 percent of the guns traced to crime." They continued: "While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals… We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons."
The assault weapons ban passed, a rare defeat for the NRA. But the NRA was able to water the measure down: It would be in place for just 10 years and would not apply to any weapon produced prior to the signing of the bill into law.
President Reagan died in June 2004, and that September, so did the ban on assault weapons. In the decade since, the NRA and its congressional supporters have crushed multiple attempts to revive it.
Reagan, who came within seconds of dying after being shot by a would-be-assassin in 1981, also supported the Brady Bill, named for his press secretary, James Brady, who took a bullet to the brain during the Reagan shooting. The Brady Bill, among other things, mandates background checks on anyone before they can buy a gun. Not a ban on guns, mind you, just a check of the person's background. Also signed in 1994, it has stopped more than 2 million gun purchases, about 2 percent of all transactions. 98 percent of transactions? No problem. Yet the NRA tried and failed for seven years to defeat the Brady Bill, spending millions of dollars along the way. It continues the fight to this day.
"It's hard to believe that some conservatives who claim to revere Ronald Reagan still reject the commonsense gun reforms he backed," Sarah Brady told me recently. Nancy Reagan herself, now 91, stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband as he fought the NRA and urged Republican lawmakers to do the right thing. After all, as President Reagan implored, "This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety."
Australia understood this after a 1996 massacre killed 35 people. It banned assault weapons. Number of mass shootings since then? None.
Another gun-loving country, New Zealand (one gun for every four people), requires written permits to order guns or ammunition, requires photographs for firearms licenses, and requires gun owners to have secure storage for firearms at their homes (which are inspected before a license is issued). Government intrusion? To some degree. But deaths are also down sharply since these and other measures were enacted after a mass shooting more than two decades ago.
What if the Reagan-inspired ban on assault weapons, or some of the above measures, had been in place before last Friday? Criminals would still find a way, gun advocates say, and as President Obama acknowledged in his emotional speech in Newtown last night, no single law, or even series of laws, can prevent tragedy.
But we'll never know, will we? Unless we try. So once again, Republicans: Imagine, if you can, what the final moments must have been like for the children. They deserved better. At least the man you claim to worship, Ronald Reagan, thought so.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- An open letter to #brands about Gamergate
- Did the media get Ferguson wrong?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
- The most sensible GOP alternative to ObamaCare comes from a Senate candidate who is almost sure to lose
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- When Khomeini said no to Iranian nukes
Subscribe to the Week