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ABC's Hugh Downs On Gun Control
ABC News Perspective: Assault Weapons
by Hugh Downs
Years ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy distinguished himself from
his opponent Richard M. Nixon by saying that he, Kennedy, knew who he was and
that Nixon did not know who he was.
Knowing who you are suggests maturity and a sense of self hood. Nations, just
like individuals, also have identities and nationals can understand who they
are, too. Members of any civilization can realize their uniqueness.
Sometimes some Americans seem to have difficulty understanding who they are.
The United States is unique and we shouldn't feel guilty or envious because
we aren't like other nations.
One issue that seems to magnify our lack of self confidence in who we are is
the gun debate. Some Americans think we should be like the Japanese when it
comes to guns. Other think we should behave like the British, or the Swiss,
or maybe some other foreign nationals.
The recent vote to repeal the so-called assault weapons ban seemed to kick up
the dust once again in the gun debate. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode
Island, equated weapons with satanic forces. "Play with the devil, die with
the devil," Kennedy said. Jim Chapman, another Democrat from Texas, said
banning certain rifles was like outlawing Rolls Royce's because of drunk
drivers and the damage they do. But the two sides couldn't be more opposed.
Before we plunge into the question of what a so-called assault weapon is,
let's back up a few million years and consider their evolution. Our most
ancient hominid ancestors learned to throw stones to kill game. Later when
they learned how to throw spears, Anthropologists and paleontologists
theorized that the act of throwing was a tremendously stressful thing.
Combining binocular vision and distance estimation with delicate hand-eye
coordination had never been attempted before in nature. Humans pioneered the
And one of the consequences of mastering this technique was a more robust
nervous system; a nervous system that may be responsible for opening the door
to humanity's unique intellectual activity.
Spears turned into bows and arrows. And arrows turned to crossbow bolts, and
then to firearms. The development of field artillery created a demand for
sophisticated mathematics and mathematicians solved problems of ballistic
velocities and trajectories.
The manufacture of firearms gave birth to precision engineering, concepts of
mass production, and breakthrough insights in metallurgy.
As a result of the intellectual achievements, master gunsmiths in New England
and elsewhere created an economic powerhouse. Guns and intellectual progress
seemed to have been intertwined. Rocket science is a direct outgrowth of
humankind's fascination with ballistics.
Perhaps the most stunning of all these fruits is the development of the
computer. The purpose of the world's first computer, Eniac, was to calculate
artillery and missile trajectories. In other words, humanity's most
astonishing intellectual artifact, the computer, is an offspring of our love
affair with guns.
Well, that's a truth about guns. Guns exercised our unique intellectual
ability. They stimulated many scientific disciplines. They created wealth.
And the have defeated enemies from Adolph Hitler to Sadam Hussein.
Some people may not like the idea, but a large measure of our success as a
species is due to our passion for firearms. This is an uncomfortable truth,
because guns serve a dark side of humanity also. War is our dark side. War
destroys life and property. And everyone, even brave warriors, justifiably
fear it. Weaponry provided food for our tables and served us well in certain
But as instruments of war they play a cacophonous distasteful tune. Nobody
likes it. People who claim they like war, I believe, are lying to themselves
and to the world.
But guns do not make war. Guns can hold neither grudges nor hate. Guns are
merely instruments. A machine gun can no more launch an attack without a
machine gunner than an oboe is to play Mozart without a musician. Instruments
are extensions of people. Firearms are merely extensions of people.
Firearms, in whatever numbers or whatever configurations, are not the
problem. The problem would seem to have its roots in national attitude we
have toward correcting things. Where did we develop the idea that personal
grievances or social wrongs can be redressed by shooting the bad guy?
For example, we do not have the greatest number of handguns per capita. We
just have (the) greatest number of deaths from these weapons. Israel and
Switzerland are both ahead of us in number of handguns per capita. But they
don't have very much of this kind of crime. Almost every home in these
countries has at least one sidearm, given a person on completion of
compulsory military service. They have the guns, but they just don't seem
inclined to shoot each other.
The assault rifle debate takes our attention away from the underlying
problem: how to effect a change in our national attitude toward settling
differences by violence. This is what we should be focused on. But we seem to
(be) fixated on a buzzword like "assault."
Hunters, professional armors, and firearm historians say the term is
imprecise. Some claim there is no such thing. One common term, known as an
assault rifle, refers to a long arm or carbine capable of automatic fire with
ordinary military ammunition or big-game ammunition.
Fully automatic weapons, true machine guns, have been banned since the 1930s
and that ban remains in effect. So the "assault weapon" ban cannot refer to
machine guns, although many people, I think, mistakenly think so. All the
banned weapons are semi-automatic.
Legislators who initiated the ban claim that semi- automatic weapons have no
sporting use. But semi- automatic rifles have long history in hunting and
other sports. The famous BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle, is a
semi-automatic hunting rifle; so is the Remington Model 7400. Semi-automatic
shotguns have been on the market for many years.
The banned rifles differ from non-banned ones only in small decorative
details: decorations like a folding stock, a bayonet mount, or a flash
suppresser. Otherwise, the banned "assault weapons" are ordinary rifles. They
are not automatic military weapons.
But the Republicans are now embarrassed by a perceived necessity of lifting
the ban on so-called assault weapons. And they've elected to do so as quickly
and quietly as can be done to get it behind them so it's not an issue later
on when the elections looms. Many of them feel it will not get past both
houses of Congress anyway and they can then say to the NRA, "We did our best."
Unlike Britons, Americans are citizens and not subjects. And there's a very
great difference between the two. Americans do not worship their government
as god, which is a thousand-year-old tradition in Japan. Nor, like the
Japanese, do we believe that government is infallible, as if government
authority were an extension of family authority.
Americans are not Canadians either. We are unlike both the strict Quebecoise
and the English-speaking subjects of the British monarch. Americans are
different and require different rules and laws.
Maybe when we Americans learn to responsibly manage our guns, and our drugs,
and our automobiles, or any other of the dangerous things in life, maybe then
we will know who we are.
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