Sachs: Ban semiautomatic assault weapons and save lives

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Story highlights

  • Jeffrey Sachs: Semiautomatic assault weapons not protected by 2nd Amendment. When banned, mass shooting deaths fell; ban lifted, deaths soared
  • Sachs: It must be tough for complicit GOP lawmakers to worry about being shot, even as they face NRA retribution if they vote for a ban

Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Semiautomatic assault weapons are not protected by the Second Amendment. The federal government and the states can outlaw them, a point underscored by none other than the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who emphasized that the Second Amendment protects gun ownership of the types of arms that were "in common use" in 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted.

Jeffrey Sachs
The federal government banned military-style semiautomatic assault weapons for 10 years between 1994 and 2004, and deaths from mass shootings fell. It's a no-brainer to do so again, and fast.
According to data assembled by Mother Jones in its open-source database, there were 15 mass shootings with 96 deaths during the 10-year ban. The ban expired in 2004 and was not renewed, and mass shooting deaths soared. During the next 10 years, there were an astounding 35 mass shootings and 195 deaths. Since then, the rate of mass shootings has continued to rise. Even before the latest massacre, America was awash in semiautomatic assault weapons and bloodshed.
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    Congress members themselves are vulnerable, as we saw when a gunman opened fire on a Republican baseball practice in June, injuring, among others, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise. It must be a miserable job to worry (along with the rest of us) about being shot by people armed with semiautomatic assault weapons -- but at the same time to be targeted for retribution by the National Rifle Association for a vote in favor of something as obvious as a ban on such weapons. We need to boost the security of the Congress so that they can more safely vote to save themselves and us.
    Other countries are not paralyzed. Australia, which is a lot like the United States in its politics and its libertarian streak, strictly bans such weapons. It suffered a number of mass shootings involving semiautomatic weapons in the 1980s and 1990s, including a horrendous mass shooting in 1996. The government of the time took decisive action, banning such weapons. Since then, there has not been a single mass shooting with semiautomatic assault weapons and very few cases of multiple homicides.
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    It's a good bet that the families of the Las Vegas victims will eventually file a class-action suit suing the gun industry for its reckless disregard. The families can never recover their awful loss, but they could yet save the lives of countless others by bringing these awful companies to justice. Nothing should exonerate gun manufacturers from their responsibility in making and marketing such instruments of needless death.
    America is heading for a societal nervous breakdown. The President is a crude narcissist whose antics provoke division, hatred and violence, and our society is in the grips of an epidemic of gun violence. The Republican Party is utterly complicit in this, focused only on achieving a tax cut for the super rich to the neglect of every real responsibility to the society.
    It is often said that it is darkest before the dawn. Let us certainly hope so. It is dark indeed today in Las Vegas and across the land.
    Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly referred to semiautomatic weapons as banned under the now-expired 1994 federal assault weapons ban. The reference should have been to military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, which, under the ban, were illegal to manufacture for use by private citizens.