Mona Simpson
Mona Simpson has written five novels. Her most recent book is My Hollywood.

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REASON 74: Barack Obama would reinstate the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Don’t you just want to go to the movies with me? I once heard someone say. It was a plangent bid, roughly translating: Don’t you want to be with me, for fun and the pleasures of daily life? For a hundred years, middle-class Americans have been going to the movies to find affordable, regular entertainment. Which is one of the reasons the shooting this summer in a Colorado movie theater disturbed us so deeply. At a midnight, sold-out showing of The Dark Knight Rises, during the first week of the movie’s general release, many young people attended in costume, as they had a few years earlier at the midnight releases of the Harry Potter books. The twenty-four-year-old assailant, James Eagan Holmes, was a reputedly quiet PhD student in neuroscience. He had no previous record other than a traffic ticket. But during the month before the massacre, he purchased nearly 7,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet.

Holmes brought this ammunition to the theater, where he used a pump action 12-gauge shotgun, at least one .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol, and an AR-15 rifle to fire into the crowd. According to law enforcement officers in Aurora, Colorado, Holmes purchased all of these weapons legally. In fact, James Dao pointed out in the New York Times, the three types of weapons he used “are among the most popular guns available in the multibillion-dollar American firearms market.” Weapons like the AR-15—a semiautomatic variation of the military’s M-16 rifle, the signature weapon of the Vietnam war, nicknamed “a Barbie doll for men” because of its many parts and accessories—were restricted for ten years under a 1994 law known as the assault weapons ban. But the law expired in 2004.

When Holmes was arrested by police, he reportedly told them he was “The Joker,” the fictional villain from the Batman movies. That claim seemed to hearken back to the perennial discussion of the insanity defense. Does he think he’s shooting you for a good reason, or does he think he’s shooting you because you’re a banana?

That we can reasonably assume the young man to have been mentally ill is another part of the horror of that summer night, which ended with 58 people wounded and 12 dead. We find ourselves left holding a tragedy for which there is no precise culprit. To a civilian, it looks simple:

Mental illness + guns = this.

Whether we, as a culture, have more mental illness than ought to be expected, and if so, why, are questions that beg to be addressed, but in the meantime, we all have to admit that we have many, many guns in American civilian life—a place where there is little need for them. As of this August, there were 129,817 licensed firearms dealers in the US, compared to 14,098 McDonalds’s and 36,569 grocery stores. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, there were over five million new firearms manufactured last year. Ninety-five percent of those firearms were made for the United States market. An additional three and a quarter million weapons were imported to the US.

And remember, those numbers represent just one year’s worth of guns. Guns don’t go away. Unlike your laptop, they don’t depend on software that renders them quickly obsolete. Since 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background System has run more than 151 million NICS checks for firearms purchases.

This is an old problem. It’s a problem that insidiously infects our quality of life, and also one many sane politicians are terrified to address.

“This issue is completely stuck in the mud,” says Jason Paul, a young political strategist. “The occasional big ticket shootings get terrible attention and everyone feels bad about them. But they’re admittedly rare… The problem is the states. To get any bill passed, you need sixty votes in the Senate. The rural states don’t want gun control. They aren’t concerned about urban violence… In 2000, Al Gore lost Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia because of guns. There’s a mythology that if you take on guns, you lose.”

It’s difficult to know whether the NRA has the power to hobble a political career or whether politicians just think it does. James Johnson, the Baltimore County, Maryland police chief, joined other law enforcement officers at the National Press Club to declare that a high-capacity magazine like the one used in the Aurora shooting “simply has no place in civilian hands… It is ridiculous to argue that hunters or civilians who own weapons for self-defense need a 100-round drum magazine.”

But law enforcement officers care about their constituents’ safety, not politics, and the NRA’s grip on Congress—whether real or imagined—prevents any legislative action. “Dick Lugar got on their bad side a decade ago and it still cost him his primary this year,” says Jason Paul. “It’s so much easier to think of people who got in trouble for being too anti-gun than anyone who has ever lost [an election] for being too pro-gun.”

While I’m not thrilled with Obama’s record about gun control, Romney’s record has been downright mercurial and pretty clearly only about getting elected. For a stunning show of Romney’s evasiveness, look up his initial denial this summer that Holmes obtained his weapons legally. Or consider his failure to advocate for the renewal of the 1994 assault weapons ban. This after he signed an assault weapons ban as the governor of Massachusetts in 2004. As governor, it seemed Romney supported gun control. But then, in 2006, a few months before launching his first presidential bid, he joined the NRA and, in the early days of his New Hampshire campaign, he responded to a NRA cap-wearing interlocutor: “I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.” (That was untrue. According to the Daily Beast, Romney’s campaign quickly acknowledged that he had not been a lifetime hunter. They cited two hunts he attended: a rabbit hunting trip in Idaho when he was fifteen and a Georgia quail hunt organized during the Republican Governors’ Association in 2006. Romney later stated that he had hunted “varmints” on multiple occasions. In further prevarications on the matter, in January 2007, Romney said, “I have a gun of my own. I go hunting myself,” but then acknowledged to reporters two days later that he did not own a gun.)

Reading between the lines, I’m guessing that neither candidate hunts, neither contender enjoys guns, and that each man likely admits, in his private conversations with his wife, that the country would be a better place to live if we reinstated the 1994 assault weapons ban, drafted tougher gun control laws, and somehow began the Sisyphean task of destroying our guns. Neither man can believe that the Second Amendment guarantees a citizen’s right to take a semiautomatic weapon into a movie theater and shoot at 70 people, so the choice of who to support is not a matter of what each man believes, but rather, of the strength of his conscience and the measure of his courage.

Obama, during the second presidential debate, said that weapons designed for soldiers at war don’t belong on the streets. He said he would reinstate the 1994 assault weapons ban. Romney said he was not in favor of new legislation about guns. He also repeated his erroneous contention that “It is already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.” (In most states it is legal to purchase assault weapons—you just have to register for a license and pay a small fee.)

Perhaps it’s as simple as taking the NRA’s report card for a crib sheet. The NRA grades politicians, as we grade children, using letters. They gave Obama an “F.” They gave Mitt Romney a “B.”

In the end, it’s a matter of intuition as to each man’s character and authenticity: I believe that Obama has a conscience, and with an issue as tangled and riddled with political peril as this one, that’s all we can count on. I’ve got to believe that our sensitive, frowning president wants his daughters to grow up and be able to go out to the movies with someone they love.

Mona Simpson
 Santa Monica, California

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