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And Terrorism for All

A makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting on Valentine's Day. (Gerald Herbert / AP)

They are meant for hunting. And in the latest tragedy, at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the shooter—armed with an assault rifle—did some hunting of the most dangerous game of all: human beings.

There’s a big difference between what a 9mm handgun and an AR-15 assault rifle (or, as the NRA euphemistically calls it, a “modern sporting rifle”) does to the human body. One trauma surgeon reports that the former resembles a “bad knife cut,” while the latter “looks like a grenade went off in [the body].” Bullets from handguns travel at about one-third the speed of an AR-15. The thick bone of an upper leg can stop pistol shots. The 5.56 caliber rounds from an AR-15 can disintegrate three inches of leg bone. According to another trauma specialist, if the assault round hits an organ, say, the liver, “it looks like a Jell-O mold that’s been dropped on the floor.” When it comes to its effect on the human body, the AR-15, most certainly, qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction.

Around 30,000 Americans die annually through suicides, homicides and accidents involving firearms. You’re about 10 times more likely to be killed with a gun in this “beacon of democracy” than are people in other developed nations. Sounds plausible. After all, with 300 million to 400 million civilian firearms on our streets, the United States is by far the most heavily armed nation in the world. A distant second is Yemen, that basket case of a country many describe as the “Wild West” of the Arab world. So, yeah, we’re in good company.

Firearms have particularly pernicious effects on children. They’re the biggest killer of young black people and second biggest killer of all children (after auto accidents). It’s not only assault rifles, of course, but guns more generally that pose the problem. Handguns cause the vast majority of firearms deaths. Still, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines are conspicuous for their increasing use in mass murder incidents—you know, like the one in Vegas where an elevated shooter fired some 1,100 rounds into a country music crowd, killing 58 and wounding 500. Now that’s efficiency, brought to you by the assault rifle (or rifles) and a simple little bump stock variant that shifted the guns’ setting from semi- to fully automatic.

Through it all, the AR-15 remains—in the NRA’s cheeky language—“America’s rifle,” the country’s most popular variant of assault weapon. You can understand why. Four out of five high school boys play video games, and so-called “first-person shooters” are among the most popular. And, of course, the AR-15 makes regular appearances in such games. Besides, these firearms look and feel cool. Heck, I’ve held them and felt the thrill. To carry a military-style assault weapon seemingly imbues a man with power and status. Besides, they just look badass.

They’re not going anywhere either, it seems. Despite regular public polling in favor of commonsense gun control, an alliance of Trump’s loyal base and Republican politicians bought off by the NRA will block any action, pray away the latest tragedy and wait for Parkland to fade from the headlines. Then they’ll be another massacre. Rinse and repeat.

Gun enthusiasts (a funny term when you think about it) pivot between exclamations of constitutional protections and harmless “hunting” explanations to assert their incontestable rights to bear arms. Of course, we all know it’s so much BS. The AR-15 fetish ain’t about hunting. Rounds fired from assault rifles aren’t best suited for hunting game. They’re designed to obliterate human flesh. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson recently stated that he’d “hunted all [his] life … but an AR-15 is not for hunting. It’s for killing.”

That sounds about right. Soldiers under my command killed a whole lot of Iraqis and Afghans with the same rifles. The aftermath isn’t pretty. Still, that was a battlefield, where one expects to see such carnage. And that, right there, is what the cheap and all-too-accessible AR-15 was designed for: the battlefield.

***
I’ve carried an M4 rifle (a military variant of the AR-15) and a 9mm pistol since I was 17 years old. I was a soldier, and, for better or worse, those are the tools of the trade. That’s the key word—tools. In the army, weapons are sensitive pieces of equipment, not toys. It’s never about fun, or a hobby or protection from government tyranny. And, in the military at least, they regulate the heck out of our rifles and handguns.

As the troop commander of a cavalry reconnaissance unit, I had ultimate authority and financial liability for hundreds of M4s, pistols, machine guns and grenade launchers. We used them for training on Fort Riley, Kan., and then turned each and every weapon back into the armory on base. Soldiers don’t take their lethal tools home with them. Those stayed in the meticulously locked unit “arms room,” under the care of a specially appointed and trained armorer who worked directly for the troop commander. No one went home from a long day (or week) of training until a commissioned officer did a 100 percent inventory—by serial number—of each weapon. And if a soldier wanted to check out a weapon for some reason, he’d need express permission, a valid reason and the approval of the armorer, who, incidentally, followed precise legal and unit standard operating procedures to ensure there was a legitimate military necessity for the weapon checkout.

Similar systems pervade every U.S. Army unit. That’s commonsense gun control. And it works.

So why, one might ask, are the deadly weapons my soldiers toted in downtown Baghdad available for domestic purchase—and deadly use—by boys too young to legally purchase a can of Coors Light? It comes down to two words: prioritization and militarization.

***
Sure, bloodbaths in Orlando, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and Parkland grab media attention for days and weeks at a time. Only that’s not what most people fear or the focus of the national security state. The real enemy, we’re told, the one generating all the hysteria, is “terrorism.” So let’s dig into a quick comparison of the two threats.

Luckily for us Americans, President Trump has promised to “defeat terror,” and in that spirit has “protected” us from refugees, immigrants and visitors from evil (“shithole”) countries crammed with brown folks. Ah, yes, the ban, and, eventually, the wall.

When it comes to gun violence and terrorism, American pundits, politicians and the public lack any perspective. We shake off real threats, panic over statistically insignificant dangers and ignore the hyper-militarism which has captured our culture and imperiled the republic. It’s quite the system, and the NRA loves it. When we excuse the real crisis (domestic gun violence) and demonize an inflated phony threat (brown, immigrant, Muslim terrorists) everyone, it seems, wins. At least, everyone who looks like me and doesn’t step into the wrong school, or workplace, or church, on the wrong day at the wrong time.

The data, of course, is indisputable. We always have been more likely to be killed by white men than anyone associated with Islam. Terrorism deaths are themselves exceedingly rare (about a one in 3.6 million chance), and even these attacks are less likely to be perpetrated by a Muslim than a white male. Between 2001 and 2015, domestic right-wing extremists killed more Americans (by a factor of three) than Islamist terrorists. You can bet most of those perps were white and male and citizens.

The threat from Islamist or refugee terrorists is still there, of course, but it is so remote that it is statistically nearly insignificant. Homegrown gun violence (even of an absurd character) is a far greater threat. You’re twice as likely to be shot by a toddler than killed by a terrorist. Since 9/11, an average of six Americans annually die at the hands of Islamist terrorists. In 2014, some 30 Americans murdered one another—daily. The real mortality crisis, besides chronic diseases, comes from violence—gun violence—that leads to more suicides, accidents and murder. Parkland is the symptom, not the cause.

Nothing will change until Americans call gun violence by its true name: terrorism. In current usage, we define “terror” based on the race and religion of the victims and perpetrators. Brown, vaguely Arab, nominally Muslim shooter? Terrorist. Skinny, pimply, outcast, young white boy guns down some folks? Mentally ill murderer. Same goes for the victims and the amount of media coverage an attack garners. White, middle-class teen victims? Easy: a tragedy. Hundreds of brown shredded and broken bodies somewhere between Morocco and Pakistan? Just another day in the chaotic Mideast, worthy of a quick pass on the news ticker at the bottom of the screen.

The hypocrisy is staggering.

***
American democracy, what’s left of it anyway, is prisoner to a militarized culture. What becomes of a society that saturates its sports and entertainment with increasingly martial displays and warlike pageantry? Americans stand and cheer each week for the “heroes” honored, exulted even, at midfield of their baseball and football stadiums. Soldiers, marines, police officers—all the men with guns—stand tall and soak up the primal roar of the crowd. We’ve become desensitized, fail even to question the ritual, one that recalls the mob in the Roman Coliseum.

Who we honor is who we are. Our ceremonies are instructive. Forget other public servants—even those who more closely hew to the values of a peaceful, Nazarene carpenter worshiped in this purportedly “Christian nation.” This is America, after all. There’s no room on the 50-yard line for Detroit social workers or South Bronx public school teachers.

America’s favored symbols have always been militarized: from Minutemen, to Wild West gunslingers, to today’s Spec Ops warriors. We parade them, adulate them, worship them and do not pause to question our national priorities.

Make way. Stand and cheer for the men with guns. For those armed with the real weapons of mass destruction: the ubiquitous assault rifles and handguns saturating this country.

As for the young victims at Stoneman Douglas High School and a thousand other mass-shooting tragedies, all that is offered are thoughts, prayers and excuses. Sigh with despair, change the channel and flip on the game.

All hail militarism, lionized violence and a crumbling republic.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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