Moving beyond another gun-control impasse: Lets talk AR-15s, mental health and a whole lot more

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Time for a limit on magazine capacity?

At 66, I cry over a lot of things. Old Man’s Syndrome, I guess.

So I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept on public radio, talking about the school shooting in Florida.

Or, more specifically, I broke down when I spoke with Lori Walsh on SDPB’s In the Moment about watching my 9-year-old grandson, Jackson, shuffle across the crosswalk toward Wilson Elementary School the morning after the mass shooting with his hood up, his head down and his backpack bouncing.

It was a picture of innocence, multiplied by the millions at schools across the nation.

Like most mornings, Jackson appeared to be without a care in the world, other than, perhaps, the condition of his homework and his quest to earn some “free time” in the classroom.

But not a real life-and-death care, nothing like that.

If he made the connection between his beloved Wilson Elementary in Rapid City and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida it didn’t show. Which is not to say he doesn’t understand Wilson’s place in the realities of this world.

The robbery related murder of a 45-year-old clerk at the Loaf ’N’ Jug convenience store, where Jackson and other neighborhood kids go for treats, next door to Wilson about a year ago made that connection pretty clear, to every kid and staffer at the school.

To all of us who send our kids there, too.  I wrote about that tragedy here

The horror in Florida, though, was different than what happened at the Loaf ’N” Jug, which was a next-door thing. There a badly intoxicated 17-year-old became deranged when confronted by a night clerk during a beer-theft attempt, and stabbed her to death. There was a viciousness to the stabbing that was like nothing Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris could remember in his career.

It was horrible. Parkland was horrible, too, times 17 dead and 15 more wounded. It wasn’t next door to a school. It was the school. And the targets were the kids and staff inside.

If it happens in Parkland, where can’t it happen? How do you not consider that when you drop your child or grandchild off at school?

Turning left at the four-way stop in front by the school, I glanced in the rearview and saw that familiar red-and-black coat — the one that says “our kid” — moving in among all the “their kids” and “your kids,” heading for a place that I always considered safe.

What am I to consider now? Where are the safe places these days, in an era when active-shooter drills are being sandwiched into days of education along with math and spelling, science and literature?




And what are we to do besides weep and rage after the next barrage of lead?

Well, the list there is long. And it’s not nearly as simple as some on opposite sides of the political debates that came, predictably, in the aftermath of Parkland would suggest.

You can say it was the gun, and you would be right. You can say it was the mental illness or the abject anger and the pure hate inside the shooter, and you would be right, too.

You can say it was the FBI and what its agents didn’t do, the mental health system and how it failed, school security and what it didn’t have, the violence in media and video games and the failure of families and disintegration of social structures.

Right. Right. Right. Right. Right.

You can say it was a sheriff’s deputy who didn’t run toward danger but lingered outside, maybe missing a fleeting chance to end the shooting earlier and save lives — although possibly not his own. He would have tried to match an assault weapon with a handgun, without knowing where the shooter awaited inside, whether that weapon was trained on the door he was about to open.

You can say Scot Peterson deserves the public shaming he is currently getting. And I’ll say I wish he had gone inside, disabled the shooter and lived to tell about it. But never having been in that spot, I guess I won’t judge him. And I can’t imagine the kind of guilt he carries today.

You can also say that what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will happen again and again and again, despite the emotions and best intentions of the #neveragain movement.

And it will, as wrong as that is. As horribly wrong. It will. Happen again. The question is how many times, and how bad will those times be?

Can we ever, somewhere in the future, bring these all-too-regular tragedies to an end?

I don’t know. But we can start again with the same old arguments, not because I think they’ll produce a compromise but because I think we have to, start again. Start there. And not quit. Keep trying. Keep talking. And especially, keep listening.

Or in many cases, start listening. Do you think we can do that? Do you think you can?

Why haven’t we yet banned bump-fire stocks? We were going to after Las Vegas last fall. Congress seemed willing. Then the buck was passed to ATF, which means it was passed to the president. Neither has done anything meaningful.

Banning bump stocks was supposed to be the easy one. And even that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Maybe now.

Why not ban high-capacity magazines? Some hold up to 100 rounds. Many hold 30. Who needs more than 10? In a recent letter to the Pierre Capital Journal, my friend John Cooper raised that issue, among others. Cooper is a former federal game warden, former state Game, Fish & Parks secretary and Second Amendment advocate with 16 rifles and shotguns and two handguns.

Cooper is also a former Navy officer who served on river boats in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. At various times he carried an M-14, M-16 (the fully automatic weapon after which the semi-automatic AR-15 was fashioned) an M-60 machine gun.

After carrying such weapons in a real war, Cooper didn’t want to own or carry their imitations in civilian life. That’s a “didn’t want” I can understand, even though I’ve never been to war.

Among other things, Cooper suggests a maximum magazine capacity of five. I’ve suggested 10, but five — plus one in the chamber — seems like enough for target shooting and hunting. And in a mass shooting, couldn’t lives be saved if the gunman has to change magazines rather than keep firing after 10, 20, 50 rounds?

Along with magazine capacity, Cooper makes these suggestions in his letter:

Close ALL loopholes in the currently required background check system, especially those related to gun shows; 2) require any person to be 21 years of age to purchase an assault style gun (I’ll write the list of definitions of what is an assault weapon and name the manufactures if needed) 3) restrict the sale of armor-piercing bullets; 4) Strengthen the current requirements to report all criminal infractions to the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) and create incentives for states to do so.




Cooper doesn’t mention a ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons. But I think we should talk about it, seriously. Talk not yell.

Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed such a ban in 1994, which was supported by former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

The ban, which expired and wasn’t renewed after 10 years, prohibited the sale, transfer or possession of 19 specific military style firearms with certain combat-related features, as well as a ban on magazines with more than a 10-round capacity. It did not cover any such weapons that had been manufactured and lawfully possessed when the act took effect.

The act also exempted hundreds of other firearms, including semi-automatic rifles that didn’t meet the “assault weapon” criteria defined in the act. Just how much the 10-year ban helped in saving lives is debatable. And its impacts have been oversold by advocates, from President Bill Clinton years ago to Democratic U.S. Rep. Fred Deutsch of Florida following the shootings in Parkland.

However, there was a reduction in the number of mass shootings during the ban, compared to prior years. That data needs to be qualified, however, by related factors such as population changes. But it’s pretty clear that individual mass shootings on average have become deadlier since the ban was lifted, with more lives lost.

So, in general there were indications that lives were saved during the Clinton-era ban. Maybe we can save lives again. Maybe a lot of lives.

If you say banning specific guns is a slippery slope, I’ll agree. Every important decision on laws and regulations affecting citizens and our lives and well-being can be a slippery slope. When do we go too far? When do we not go far enough?

But advanced civilizations of laws and courts and representative governments are designed to operate on slippery slopes. Banning the sale of certain weapons doesn’t mean banning all weapons. To say otherwise is either stupidity or political gamesmanship.

Having said that, I admit that it gets to be really difficult when you start banning specific firearms, particularly a popular model like the AR-15. We don’t know how many of those style weapons are in circulation in the United States right now, because federal officials are prohibited under the law from forcing gun dealers to report the specific models of guns sold.

But NRA and ATF officials are comfortable saying that there are already millions — maybe up to 10 million — assault style rifles in the United States today. So a ban — which almost certainly would have a grandfather clause as the previous one did — wouldn’t stop an imbalanced person who already has such a weapon. Nor would it mean he couldn’t get one.

But getting one would be harder, at least.

I’ve never owned an AR-15 style rifle. Never wanted to. And I don’t get the appeal. I think they’re ugly weapons. I quit playing Army when I was about 10. And I don’t like the idea of packing around a military style gun in the field.

I’m not a big target shooter. But people tell me they love shooting AR-15s at targets. And shooters across the nation do that every day at gun ranges, safely and without threat to others. But there are the few who have other plans for such weapons. Horrific plans.

If I owned an AR-15 type rifle, I have to think that the day after Parkland — or maybe the day after Las Vegas, or maybe the day after Sandy Hook — I would have taken it out to the garage, pulled out the sledge hammer and pummeled it to pieces.

Or maybe I would have turned it into the local police or sheriff’s offices, who might actually have a legitimate use for it.

If you snoop around the internet, you’ll see that since Parkland some people have hacked up AR-15s and also turned them in to authorities, which I considered to be little gestures with big meaning.

I know an assault-weapons ban is unlikely to get much support in a Republican-controlled Congress with a Republican in the White House. President Trump’s base is full of NRA members, and even some who think the NRA isn’t tough enough on guns. Ever heard of the Gun Owners of America? Yup. They think the NRA tends to be a little soft on guns.

They’re big in Trump’s base, too.  With them and guys like Stephen Miller whispering in the president’s ear, I doubt we’ll see any serious movement on legislation to ban the assault weapons.

But how about making them a lot more difficult to buy? How about a system where alarms go off every time one is sold, or even inquired about? How about you have to answer more questions, do more justifying of why you want such a combat-style weapon?

Why not?




I can agree with Trump on a number of things here: Better school security? Sure, maybe including architectural changes, metal detectors, more refined warning systems when danger is noted, as it was by school officials in Parkland.

Better mental-health monitoring and help? Sure. Absolutely. I’ll discuss them down below. Armed school sentinels who volunteer and are well trained for having to respond in a shooting situation? If individual schools decide that’s for them, I think I could support it.

And Trump says we need tougher background checks. I agree. It took me about 10 minutes to buy my last firearm. What if it took 20, or 50, or two days? Big deal.

Even gun registration? Trump and I would disagree there. I know, people will get crazy at the mention of it. But I don’t have a problem with a registry of guns sold, so we’ll know who’s buying what, and where — and, with certain guns, their reasons why.

I know I should be worried about that. I’ve often been told that registration is a step away from confiscation (see slippery slope argument above). Once they know where all the guns are, then they can take them away.

Really? How? And who?

Who’s “they.” Donald Trump? Mike Rounds? John Thune? Kristi Noem?

The U.S. Supreme Court?

Seriously? It’s gamesmanship, not reality.

And speaking of realities, I understand it’s not just the rifles we call assault weapons that threaten us. Far from it. Most gun deaths in America involve handguns, not AR-15s. We should stop and weep and rage about those losses all the time, because they happen all the time, especially in some of our minority communities.

We have a moral obligation as a nation to figure out some way to reduce that ongoing carnage, which happens one or two lives at a time, in one place or another, every day in this nation.

Some kids aren’t frightened to go back to school because of a recent mass shooting there. Some kids are frightened to go back to school because it’s dangerous there, every day, and dangerous on the way to and from school.

And there are handguns in the wrong hands all along the way. What are we to do about that? And when?

It’s true there are profound problems with family breakup and social calamities and cultural disintegration that create an environment where anger and hate and despair can lead to violence. Violence with fists. Violence with knives. Violence with guns. That’s big stuff to tackle, and it will take a generation.

But we have to start. And if banning or more tightly controlling the sales of a weapon that was clearly designed to produce large-scale human carnage in a war zone manages to keep some people — including children — alive in our schools and churches and on our streets and in our theaters and open-air concerts, shouldn’t we do it?

Sure, we’re playing “Whack-A-Mole” with deadly weapons here. We limit access to one weapon and others will be used. OK, let’s play. One weapon at a time, starting with the semi-automatic rifles that can empty a 30-round magazine in 15 seconds.

And if we get to the point where knives or clubs or garbage trucks are the weapons of choice in acts of public carnage, I’ll call our Whack-A-Mole performance a win.

But let’s not forget mental-health resources. We need more, inside school and outside. It’ll take money. More money. Maybe a lot more. For more school counselors, more available therapists available to schools, more help for those with serious psychological and psychiatric disorders.




My friend Sam Hurst, an author and independent-film producer here in Rapid City, has some thoughts on that.

“The NRA has chosen as its field of battle mental health,” Hurst says. “Well, we have gutted our school counseling resources. We have gutted our nursing resources in schools. All across the nation for financial reasons the schools have gutted the very resources we need to address this problem.”

The earlier a mental health problem is addressed, the less chance it will lead to a socially estranged, emotionally deranged teenager walking into school with a weapon blazing, Hurst says.

“Let’s catch him when he’s six,” he says. “Let’s have more professionals in the schools, not at the absolute back end when he’s got his AR-15, but at the beginning when he’s first struggling.”

Consider Donald Trump’s suggestion to arm certain teachers and other staffers to fight back against a shooter, and maybe offer those armed teachers bonuses for their extra duty and training and value. Hurst has a different plan.

“If we’re going to give bonuses to people to be in the schools, let’s give them to nurses; let’s give them to counselors,” Hurst said.

They could be saving lives long before any shooter shows up.

Beyond the need for early intervention, I do agree with President Trump that we need to do a much-better job of identifying and evaluating people with more advanced and potentially dangerous mental health problems. Then we need to make sure they don’t have guns and get the help they need.

Even if that leads to conflicts over whether the rights of such people are being violated.

On the subject of mental health, we need plenty of serious talk about the entertainment media and its impacts on the American psyche, especially among our youth. The carnage on TV and in the movie theaters is beyond anything I remember when I was growing up. And, of course, while we played with toy guns all the time back in the black-and-white-TV days, we didn’t have video games that let us pull the trigger and cause the simulated deaths on a big screen — or small — of thousands of characters, with blood and body parts flying.

That can’t be good for kids in general. And it can be really, really bad for kids who are already inclined toward anger and eventually even violence. Real violence. Against real people.

And speaking of real people, we need to have a clear understanding of how and why the FBI failed to appropriately respond to warning signs on the Parkland shooter. We need to reduce the chances of it happening next time a series of red flags pop up.

And we might need to do some serious modifications, at a price, at schools to make them more difficult for a shooter to enter, and offer more protection or safe escape areas for those inside when one does.

But we can’t ever get far from the gun discussion.

I’ve been around firearms my whole life, starting with that group of long guns stuffed in the corner of our back porch on the farm, behind the upright cabinet that held the livestock-vaccination supplies. I’ve been shooting guns since I was seven or eight, and carrying one in the field on hunts since I was 10.

I hope to do that as long as I can walk.

I own nine guns right now. Each has meaning to me, including my dad’s old Remington Model 11, my former father-in-law Keith’s Model 1100, my cousin Tom’s well-traveled Ruger and that single-shot Stevens .410 with the nice wood and subtle engraving that Dad gave me for my 10th birthday.

I love to hunt. And I love to hold those guns and consider the times I used them, in places I loved with people I loved. But I’d give up all those guns tomorrow if it meant I could save one of those kids down in Parkland.

I can’t save any of them, of course. And I’m not saying we have to give up our guns to do something meaningful about gun violence. But we have to give up something, maybe including certain guns, and at least including certain gun accessories.

We also might have to give up a little freedom and a little — or quite a lot — of tax money, to allow government officials to thoroughly do their jobs, to bolster security, to improve mental-health services, and to pay for other improvements that could save lives.

We might have to give up some pride and some paranoia, too, as well as the same hyperbolic, emotionally overwrought arguments we’ve been firing back and forth in the fight over guns for decades, as the carnage continued.

Something has to give, and something has to be given by all of us if we’re really serious about saving lives.

If we can agree on that, there could come a day when an old man — or anyone else — won’t have quite so much to cry about.



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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.