Notebook

April 23, 2013 6:14 pm

On Boston and the right to bear arms

The bombing should give senators opposing gun control pause for thought, says Matthew Garrahan
, Mike Acevedo puts a weapon on display at the National Armory gun store on April 11, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida. The Senate voted 68-31 to begin debate on a bill that would significantly expand background checks for gun sales©Getty

Boston is a tough place. Even its baseball stars are tough: David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox risked censure from the Federal Communications Commission in the aftermath of last week’s marathon bombings when, to cheers from thousands of fans – and a crowd that included the city mayor and state governor – he swore on national television and declared: “No one is going to dictate our freedom!”

The city has a tough police department to match, as any viewing of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed will affirm. But last week put its officers to the test. Not only were they on the scene after bombs killed three and injured more than 200 people, they also took on the two alleged suspects who were armed with semi-automatic rifles and an assortment of handguns.

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The Tsarnaev brothers, who allegedly engaged police in Thursday night’s battle in which one officer was killed and another critically wounded, were not licensed to own guns. And yet they were able to assemble an arsenal that included an M4 carbine, a weapon used by the US military, and ammunition.

The alleged bombers fired at police the day after the US Senate rejected a bipartisan bill that would have done much to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill was overshadowed by the Boston manhunt and an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas. But its failure, just four months after 20 children were shot and killed in their classroom at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, could be felt for years.

The bill would have expanded background checks on gun buyers to include sales at gun shows and gun purchases over the internet; it also contained an amendment to restrict sales of assault weapons. It died in the Senate, the victim of Republican-led resistance, to the dismay of Barack Obama and the Newtown families – who travelled to Washington to ask senators to support the proposed legislation.

It is unclear whether the bill, or one like it, would have prevented the Boston suspects from acquiring arms. Since gun licences are required in Massachusetts, they must have been bought on the black market, online or from a seller outside the state. But who knows?

An extensive, national background-check system for private gun transactions might have revealed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead suspect, had been interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of a 2011 “threat assessment” triggered by its warning from the Russian government that he “was a follower of radical Islam”.

At a time when there are more than 250m privately owned guns in the US (more than 15 per cent are semi-automatic weapons, according to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action), a background-check system seems like a no-brainer, particularly if there are terrorists seeking guns. Polls suggest about 85 per cent of Americans support tougher checks but the NRA bitterly opposes them.

Its argument doesn’t make much sense. It calls supporters of tougher gun control measures “enemies of liberty” – as if a little extra paperwork and a legal check would derail the second amendment to the US constitution and the right to bear arms. But its main argument is that “universal background checks” will infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners and lead to the organisation’s worst nightmare: a national gun registry. This, as everyone knows, is a mere step away from tyranny, communism and state-enslavement. Imagine the horror: a database of guns registered to the people who own them. Similar to government-run registries for other things such as, er, cars.

In the past three years I have covered mass shootings in Tuscon, Arizona and Aurora, Colorado – and a constant refrain on both occasions from the pro-gun lobby was that people intent on murder will find a way to kill, even if they don’t have a gun. The bombers in Boston did so – but they also had guns; and Sean Collier, the police officer who was shot on Thursday, is dead as a result. He deserved better.

The families of some of the Newtown children were in Boston to watch the marathon and were close to the finish line when the bombs went off; the final mile was dedicated to the victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School and some parents from the area were running in the race. They escaped injury but days later their hopes were dashed when the Senate killed the gun control bill they had been pushing for. They deserved better, too.

matthew.garrahan@ft.com

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