The United States Can Control Weapons of Mass Killing

Memphis, Tennessee, January 1 -- Five people wounded
Dallas, Texas, January 4 -- Three people dead, one wounded
Queens, New York, January 24 -- Three people dead, one wounded.
Troup County, Georgia, January 29 -- Five people dead.
Tyrone, Missouri, February 27 -- Eight people dead, one wounded.
Stockton, California, March 17 -- Three people dead, four wounded.
Indianapolis, Indiana, March 24 -- Four people dead
Panama City Beach, Florida, March 28 -- Seven people wounded
Phoenix, Arizona, April 16 -- Five people dead
Menasha, Wisconsin, May 3 -- Four people dead, one wounded
Dayton, Ohio, May 4 -- One person dead, six wounded
Charleston, South Carolina, June 18 -- Nine people killed
Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16 -- Five people killed
Roseburg, Oregon, Oct. 1 -- Ten people killed
Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 27 -- Three people killed, nine wounded
San Bernardino, California, December 2 -- Fourteen people dead, seventeen wounded

The Washington Post reported that by November 30, day 334 in the 2015 calendar, there had been 351 mass shootings in the United States. A mass shooting is defined as a shooting where four or more people, including the gunman, are killed or wounded.

On December 5, in a highly unusual front-page editorial, The New York Times declared, "It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America's elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let's be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism."

The Times editorial castigated politicians who "abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs" and argued "No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation." However it did not offer or evaluate specific plans for controlling weapons of mass killing.

The problem is not the 2nd Amendment, but powerful organizations like the National Rifle Association and rightwing politicians and commentators who pander to the fears of voters.

Ted Cruz, a leading Republican Party candidate for President, used the San Bernardino killings to highlight his opposition to gun control and dangerously called for more guns and vigilante groups. Speaking in Johnston City, Iowa, Cruz told a campaign crowd "you don't stop bad guys by taking away our guns, you stop bad guys by using our guns."

In Ulster County, New York, in response to San Bernardino, Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum announced "All licensed handgun owners in Ulster County should carry their pistols." He urged residents to "take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm," but to use their weapons responsibly.

Supposedly responsible mainstream media outlets like the CBS television This Morning news show, the kind rightwing Republicans like to dismiss as liberal biased, aired special commentators calling for the increased militarization of police forces. How any of these protestations would have prevented the mass killings in San Bernardino is never made clear.

Meanwhile, after every mass murder, President Obama has wrung his hands in sadness and dismay and called on a Republican controlled Congress unwilling to limit access to killing machines to change its mind and pass new legislation. Immediately after the assault at San Bernardino, the President once again called for "common sense gun safety laws." On Sunday night President Obama gave only his third prime-time televised address to the country. In the speech the President briefly and moderately addressed the issue of guns and called on Congress "to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun" and "to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino." Speaking off-the-record, Presidential advisers say President Obama is trying to find a way to use executive powers to tighten restrictions on gun sales. Possible measures include redefining who is a "high-volume" dealer to increase the number of gun sales subject to FBI screenings.

But Republican Party gun advocates are in no mood to compromise on availability of weapons of mass killing. Ted Cruz argued that the shootings in San Bernardino had nothing to do with a need for new gun control laws. Rand Paul declared "We should be advocating for more concealed carry ability for law-abiding Americans and an end to unconstitutional gun-free zones." Both Cruz and Paul are United States Senators.

Gun sales in the United States set all-time records during November 2015, especially the day after Thanksgiving. In this climate gun control laws will not be changed. But it may be possible for the president to creatively use existing law to promote at least temporary restrictions on weapons of mass killing and force national action.

I have been looking at the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, particularly Title IV, Subtitle B, Sec. 411. This is my advice to Barack Obama and his team of lawyers and advisers.

Section 411 defines "terrorist activity" very broadly. It is when an individual or an individual acting as a member of a group commits, prepares to commit, gathers information, solicits funds, or incites someone else to commit "death or serious bodily injury." As I read it, it is not clear when something is terrorism or just plain violence, which led to much confusion in police reports and media coverage after the San Bernardino shootings.

The FBI uses a similar very broad definition of terrorism. According to its website, "'Domestic terrorism' means activities with the following three characteristics: Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S." So an act can be deemed terrorist if it involves dangerous and illegal activity that intimidates or coerces a civilian population, and occurs inside the United States.

Under the Patriot Act organizations are responsible for individual actions "unless the solicitor can demonstrate that he did not know, and should not reasonably have known, that the solicitation would further the organization's terrorist activity." This includes when an individual or organization "knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support, including a safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons (including chemical, biological, or radiological weapons), explosives, or training."

Based on this law, specifically written to prevent terrorist activity, President Obama can order the United States Justice Department to arrest and prosecute every individual and organization that assists people who commit murderous acts using weapons of mass killing. That includes owners of gun stores and operators of gun shows that sold them terrorist weaponry and executives in the companies that manufactured the weapons used in the assaults. I am sure gun advocates who feel the need to own or profit off of weapons of mass killing will employ every legal avenue to push back hard.

I know what I am proposing is a legal stretch; if anyone has a better strategy I would love to hear it. Aggressive executive action might actually be sustained by a generally conservative Supreme Court. This week the Court refused to hear a Second Amendment challenge to a local Illinois law that banned semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

To use a basketball analogy, and President Obama is a big basketball fan, if the United States is going to finally control weapons of mass killing it is time for a full court press.