The tragedy in Connecticut forces America to confront a simple question: Why should we allow easy access to a weapon of mass destruction just because it could conceivably be referred to as a "gun"?
I count myself among the many Americans who at various points in their lives have owned and used long guns -- hunting rifles and shotguns -- for hunting and target shooting. No one I know in politics seriously proposes that ordinary Americans be denied the right to own those kinds of weapons.
But guns used for hunting have nothing in common with assault weapons like the ones that were used last week in the mass murder of 20 first-graders -- except the fact that they are referred to "guns."
Rapid-fire assault weapons with large clips of ammunition have only one purpose: the mass slaughter of large numbers of human beings. They were designed for use by the military to achieve that mission in combat -- and that mission alone.
No one argues that other combat weapons like rocket-propelled grenades (RPG's) or Stinger Missiles should be widely available to anyone at a local gun shop. Why in the world should we allow pretty much anyone to have easy access to assault weapons?
Every politician in America will tell you they will move heaven and earth to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists. Yet we have allowed the ban on this particular weapon of mass destruction to expire. As a result, a terrorist named Adam Lanza was able to have easy access to the assault weapons he used to kill scores of children in minutes.
Let's be clear, Adam Lanza was a terrorist just as surely as he would have been if we were motivated by an extreme jihadist ideology. It makes no difference to those children or to their grieving families whether their loved ones were killed by someone who was mentally deranged or by someone who believed that by killing children he was helping to destroying the great Satan.
When an individual is willing -- or perhaps eager -- to die making a big "statement" by killing many of his fellow human beings, it doesn't matter what their motivation is. It does matter whether they have easy access to the weapons that make mass murder possible.
And after last week, can anyone seriously question whether assault weapons are in fact weapons of mass destruction? If Lanza had conventional guns -- or like a man in China who recently went berserk, he only had knives -- he would not have been physically capable of killing so many people in a few short minutes.
Of course you hear people say -- oh, a car or an airliner can be turned into a weapon of mass destruction -- many things can become weapons of mass destruction. And there is no question after 9/11 that we know that this is true. But cars and airliners have to be converted from their primary use in order to become instruments of mass death. It takes an elaborate plot and many actors to take over an airliner and it isn't easy to methodically kill 27 people with a car.
More important, assault weapons have no redeeming social value or alternative use whatsoever. The only reason to purchase an assault weapon, instead of a long gun used for target practice or hunting, is to kill and maim large numbers of human beings.
And it is not the case that if assault weapons were banned ordinary people would get them anyway. We certainly don't take that attitude with nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. We make it very hard for a terrorist to get nuclear weapons or dirty bomb. It used to be hard to get assault weapons.
When the former President of Mexico visited the United States some time ago to discuss the drug-fueled violence on the Mexican border, he pointed out that the end of the assault weapons ban in the U.S. had resulted in an explosion of smuggling of assault weapons from the United States to Mexico. Weapons that were previously unavailable in large numbers, became plentiful. He begged the United States to re-impose the assault weapons ban.
Allowing easy access to assault weapons guarantees that terrorists, criminals and mentally unstable people will use them to commit future acts of mass murder -- it's that simple. There are seven billion people on the planet. Try as we may, we are not going to prevent some of those seven billion people from becoming terrorists, criminals or mentally unstable. Why make it easy for them to do harm to their fellow human beings by giving them easy access to a weapon of mass destruction?
Since this tragedy, there have been calls for greater restrictions and background checks on those who can buy guns -- and there should be. But from all accounts, the weapons used in the Connecticut murders were purchased legally by the shooter's mother -- who herself appeared to be perfectly sane right up to the moment that Lanza used those same weapons to end her life.
The NRA will no doubt repeat its mantra about the "slippery slope." "If we ban assault weapons, shotguns will be next," they say. Really? By banning anyone from buying Stinger Missiles that are used to shoot down airplanes do we make it more likely that the government will one day prevent people from hunting ducks?
The simple fact is that no right is absolute because rights come into conflict with each other. Your free speech does not give you the right to cry "fire" in a crowded theater.
Is the NRA's concern that banning assault weapons will put us on a "slippery slope" more important than the lives of those 20 first graders? Should it really take precedence over the fact that today in Newtown, Connecticut there are 20 families with holiday presents on a closet shelf, that were purchased for an excited six-year-old who will never open them?
Are the NRA's fears more important than the terror faced by children in the Sandy Hook Elementary school last week?
Does the right to own an assault weapon take precedence over the right of those parents to see their children grow up, and graduate from college, and stand at the alter to be married, and have children of their own?
The bottom line is that there is no reason why weapons of mass destruction of any sort - chemical weapons, biological weapons, RPG's, improvised explosive devices (IED's), missiles, dirty bombs, nuclear devices, or assault weapons -- should be easily accessible. For 10 years there was a ban on the production, ownership and use of assault weapons in the United States until Congress and the Bush Administration allowed it to lapse when it sunset and came up for reauthorization in 2004.
A serious response to the tragedy in Connecticut requires that Congress act to reinstate the assault weapons ban before the children of other families fall victim to the fantasies of some other mentally unbalanced individual -- or the ideology of a terrorist who has been empowered by our failure to act.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.