Seeking answers, with heavy hearts

Enact law that would license weapons

Pittsburgh now has joined America’s pantheon of mass atrocity.

The 11 worshippers killed in Tree of Life Synagogue are seared in our consciousness now, but we cannot forget the 17 students and faculty in Parkland, Fla., in February; the 26 worshippers in Sutherland Springs, Tex., last November; or the 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, also last November.

The list goes on and on.

But this one is different, for me and for others in our community. This is so, so close to home. I am a Jew; my wife is Dr. Audrey Korotkin, a Reform rabbi. I grew up close to Squirrel Hill and lived in that marvelous community– one of the world’s last intact urban Jewish neighborhoods — in the mid-1970s, when I was city editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I still shop there.

Atrocities such as Tree of Life defy comparison. But it bears unmistakable similarities to Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine churchgoers were gunned down in 2016 because they were black. In Squirrel Hill, 11 people died and six were wounded because they were Jews.

How can we prevent this? What can we do to stop the carnage?

To be sure, we can harden our defenses, as our houses of worship have done in light of these tragedies. We can seek more protection, and the Altoona Police Department has proactively offered assistance.

We also can look to the firepower that caused the atrocities. In Tree of Life, Parkland and others (not Charleston, where the killer used a handgun), the weapon was a military-style rifle.

The most common is the AR-15, which was used in Pittsburgh. Aside from some limited agricultural uses, its primary purposes are target practice and shooting people.

Although some states, including Connecticut and New York, have banned such weapons, I doubt Pennsylvania would follow them. Too many of the weapons are in gun safes around the state, and a black market would develop.

However, it would be possible to ban the bump stocks that allow the semi-automatic AR-15 to fire automatically, as in the Las Vegas massacre, and bans on magazines with a capacity of more than 10 bullets have been enacted elsewhere. Those are common-sense restrictions.

If not a ban on the weapon itself, then what? I believe we have a model that is in use in Pennsylvania and every other state in the country: motor vehicles.

Like military-style weapons, automobiles and trucks can cause carnage and death if used improperly or recklessly. So, we license the vehicles and the drivers.

I would propose an annual fee on both the weapon and the owner, probably in the neighborhood of $50 each. The state and counties would administer the licensing, with sheriff’s offices responsible for annually vetting the owner licenses.

Prohibited from possessing these weapons would be convicted felons, child or spouse abusers, those who have been under protection orders, and those who have expressed messages of hate or violence in public or social media.

The bans would be permanent and irrevocable.

The fee would pay for the vetting process and record-keeping. Second, it would pay for purchase of weapons from those unsuitable for licensing or wished to dispose of the weapon. The repurchased weapons would be made available to police departments based on their number of sworn officers.

Finally, the residual amount would create a fund to compensate the police officers who are wounded in the line of duty. Three officers were wounded in Tree of Life, one seriously, and the trajectories of their lives have been changed irrevocably by a terrorist’s gunfire.

Their courage needs to be recognized, and their loss needs to be compensated.

What can we do? Most Americans support restrictions on these military-style weapons of mass carnage. If banning them is not feasible, and I don’t believe it is, we can demand that our legislators license both the weapons and their owners.

Perhaps with a common-sense approach, we can keep a devastating weapon out of the hands of the next mass killer.

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