Gun Rights: Former U.S. Serviceman Calls For Ban on Semi-Automatic Weapons

When I served in Iraq, my unit and I would sometimes leave the base and head out onto the local highways. We each had a 20-round magazine in the well and a round in the chamber. After passing the front gate, our rules required us to switch off our safeties.

No matter the job (I was what infantry would call a base-sitting intelligence wimp) we kept our fingers on our triggers in the back of a half-ton Army truck. On base, the threat level is low and the tools of the trade, in my case, were a massive database of information and Microsoft Powerpoint. But outside the wire, in a combat zone, anything could and occasionally did, happen. Your M-16, M-4 rifle or M-9 handgun went from being weights around your shoulders to the only things that could keep you alive.

When I contrast that experience to the recent mass shootings involving rifles modeled after ones American soldiers use, it concerns me that we still allow civilians access to what are essentially weapons of war.

Related: Americans don't have the right to bear just any arms

There is a reason people like me call semi-automatic rifles assault weapons. The Army trains soldiers to assault targets with them. When I learned small squad infantry tactics during a non-commissioned officer training course, we practiced ambushes and attacks with blanks in our M-16s. We did not assault objectives with bolt-action rifles or handguns; we assaulted them with our semi-automatic rifles and fired numerous rounds to defeat whoever stood in our way. Our weapons matched the tactics of combat.

Texas Shooting Mourners attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Mitchell

Now those same tools of war are showing up more and more in attacks on American citizens. To kill as many children as he could, Adam Lanza used, with ruthless efficiency, an assault weapon at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Three years later, Omar Mateen used a semi-automatic rifle for an assault on an Orlando nightclub because he did not like the type of people inside. Representative Steve Scalise had barely recovered from his wounds from a June 2017 rifle attack when a Nevada man named Stephen Paddock placed his personal arsenal above a Las Vegas music festival and sprayed bullets freely on those who attended.

Now, just weeks after the Vegas attack, America’s most deadly mass shooting, another one claimed two dozen lives at a Texas church. The shooter, Devin Kelley, an Air Force veteran discharged for domestic violence, dressed in military-style gear and used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot up the congregation.

The weapons used in all of these attacks served their intent: to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time with a massive amounts of bullets. What happened regularly in Baghdad is now a regular occurrence on Main Street.

This is not a comment on the Second Amendment. Clearly, the founders of our country gave civilians the right to bear arms. I don’t advocate a gun-free society. I live in Montana, where my views will ostracize me, but I also own a bolt-action rifle for deer and elk season and a shotgun for bird season. I do not carry these weapons around every day because they are tools for a specific purpose—hunting. Yes, there are firearms ideally suited to home defense, but an assault rifle is not one of them.

Instead of sensibly prohibiting civilian use of assault weapons, they are still legal in most places and in the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy, you can still make one fire automatically with a “bump stock.” The fact that only semi-automatic, and not fully-automatic rifles are legal, isn’t the point. What is the point: a tool meant for combat situations is widely available in civil society for no apparent reason other than to let civilians feel like they are soldiers. So we wind up with men carrying a legally-purchased weapon of war. No, they are not designed exactly the same, but when the bullet leaves the barrel at subsonic speeds to shred bones and organs, the results are often the same.

It is beyond time that we ask our representatives in Congress if the massive casualties over the past several years are worth the sacrifice. In the Army, you certainly learn to value your rifle. But the men and women around you are far more important. Let us finally put our neighbors’ interest over those of the National Rifle Association and change America's gun laws.

Josh Manning was an enlisted intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army from 2002 through 2009. He deployed to Iraq twice. He now lives in Montana and is a civil rights investigator for the state.

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