The Gun That Killed 20 Children in Newtown: Made in Maine?
The first time I fired a Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle, I was struck by how compact and light it was – around five pounds – and yet it was very loud and powerful. Lethal, you might say. But my overriding thought was, why is this thing even legal?
I was on assignment for Maine Times, the now defunct but sorely missed alternative weekly newspaper. The story I was working on was how these scary-looking weapons were swiftly becoming a leading Maine export. Bushmaster Firearms was founded in Maine. Its manufacturing plant was in Windham. I interviewed the company executives, dealers and hunters, and my story (which unfortunately can’t be found online) basically concluded that no self-respecting Maine hunter would walk into the woods with one of these things.
The Bushmaster, I wrote, was the weapon of choice for terrorists and drug dealers, not sportsmen. Lightweight, easy to conceal, with a folding stock, pistol grip and a magazine that could hold dozens if not hundreds of rounds, the Bushmaster would turn a deer into steak tartare in seconds. The gun seemed like an odd, ugly stepchild of the Remingtons and Winchesters that I grew up with, a scale-model of the assault weapons used in actual combat. Unless you were planning a government coup or expecting an invasion, there was just no good reason to own one. And I couldn’t understand the fascination and downright fetishism of this weapon by some of its owners.
That was more than 30 years ago.
Now, as all of us are sick to our stomachs over the horror last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, I wonder how the founders, owners and employees of Bushmaster Firearms feel knowing that, once again, the product that’s made them millions was used in a mass shooting, this time sending 20 innocent, helpless little six-year olds to their graves? The state's medical examiner has confirmed that all of children and teachers killed at the elementary school were shot multiple times by the Bushmaster rifle, the only rifle he was carrying at the time. (Other weapons were found in his trunk and he killed himself with a pistol.)
|Bushmaster with a "Windham, ME USA" label
From humble beginnings in Windham, Maine, Bushmaster Firearms is now reportedly the nation’s leading manufacturer of assault weapons. Not long after the company reached a $2.5 million settlement with the victims of the Washington, DC sniper (who also used a Bushmaster assault rifle to kill 10 people), a big conglomerate swallowed up Bushmaster and moved manufacturing to New York. Its Windham facility closed last year. But the owners and employees quickly regrouped to start Windham Weaponry, which continues to do a brisk business today selling nearly identical assault weapons.
In the wake of the awful tragedy in Newtown, there are new calls to reinstate a ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Makes sense to me. While assault weapons are used in only about 10% of all gun crimes (and most of those are handguns), they do seem to be the go-to gun for mass murderers – Stockton Schoolyard; Aurora, Colorado; Washington, DC; Columbine and more. If a Bushmaster was a prescription drug, it would be taken off the market for its role in this many deaths.
But an assault weapons ban would be only a small step, and most likely ineffective, in preventing what happened on Friday in Newtown. And don’t expect our elected officials to fall in line for something like this. They are way too timid and too entrenched with gun manufacturers and the NRA to do anything responsible about the proliferation of guns in this country. The NRA has succeeded in convincing them that there will be hell to pay if they so much as breathe the words “gun control,” even though it’s a myth. (I heard these same claims back in 1990 when I was working for Tom Andrews who was running for Congress. When he made a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns central to his campaign, party bigwigs told us that he’d committed political suicide and would probably bring down the state’s Democratic Party with him. Andrews went on to win the Primary and serve two terms in Congress. Now as then, the public is way ahead of the politicians on gun matters.)
But Friday’s slaughter in Newtown may be the tipping point. This tragedy, perhaps more than any other recent mass killing, has exposed much deeper and darker questions about what’s going on in America. What is it that’s making angry, intelligent but mentally ill young men want to dress head-to-toe in combat gear and slaughter innocent people with assault weapons? What are we doing wrong? Is it our gun-loving, violent culture that glamorizes killing on the big screen and in video games? Why is it easier in this country for these people to get their hands on guns than it is to get the mental health services they need?
It’s easy to blame the guns, but it’s more than that. We need to open up the lines of discussion with everybody involved – the National Rifle Association, Hollywood movie makers, gun manufacturers, mental health experts, etc. – and come up with a comprehensive plan to address this issue. Otherwise, we’re in for more sickening heartbreaks like last Friday.
For what they’re worth, here are my suggestions:
- The NRA and its followers have got to drop their paranoid beliefs that any reasonable restrictions on owning or buying a gun will infringe their Constitutional rights. The Constitution may (and I emphasize may) give you a right to possess firearms, but it doesn’t give you a right to possess every type of firearm with absolutely no restrictions. There are all kinds of firearms you can’t legally own, a shoulder-fired Stinger missile, for example. Licensing and registering guns are not the same as confiscation. Get over it. If you stick to these unrealistic, delusional, pig-headed views, maybe your right to own a gun should be questioned.
- With millions of guns in circulation – something like three per household – banning one type of weapon is probably unrealistic. What we need to do is limit the access and the lethality of these weapons. For example, fully automatic versions of these assault weapons (the kind that keep discharging bullets with one pull of the trigger) are highly regulated, but not illegal. The sale and ownership of machine guns are subject to the National Firearms Act of 1934 and are still tracked by the ATF to this day. They only pass from one owner to the next after a thorough background check and ATF approval – and I don’t hear the NRA or gun owners complaining about this intrusion of their rights. And here’s the important point: There have only been two murders ever committed with a legally owned fully automatic machine gun, one by a police officer in 1988 and the other in 1994. None since then.
- So if we can't ban semi-automatic assault weapons, let’s just treat them the same way as their fully automatic cousins. But at the same time let’s ban high-capacity clips and magazines. Why does a gun owner need the ability to fire off 100 or even 30 rounds in a few seconds if he’s hunting or defending his house from an intruder? Banning high-capacity magazines would at least force these mass murderers to take some time to reload during their rampage and might just save a few lives.
- In addition, let’s tax the shit out of these guns. Big time. They’re an exotic, unnecessary luxury item for gun collectors and enthusiasts. But they are also dangerous, deadly products. If people really want to own them, they should pay a premium, a huge premium. And we’ll dedicate those tax dollars toward expanding and improving the nation’s mental health services. It's a small cost for causing all this carnage.
The politicians who cower in fear over the lobbying strength of the NRA aren’t going to do anything with this issue. It’s time for the people, all of us who are outraged by these senseless shootings, to get serious.
Note: This story was updated to include information from the medical examiner that the Bushmaster rifle was the only weapon used to in the assault.