December 5, 2015
(Courtesy The New York Times)

(Courtesy The New York Times)

For the first time in many decades, The New York Times has taken the rare step of running an editorial on its front page. Calling the availability of deadly weapons “a moral outrage” and “a national disgrace,” the editorial calls for an outright ban on some weapons:

Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, called the front-page editorial “an incredibly strong and powerful” message that emphasizes the country’s inability to grapple with “the scourge of guns.”

Even in this digital age, the front page remains an incredibly strong and powerful way to surface issues that demand attention. And, what issue is more important than our nation’s failure to protect its citizens?

Published days after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California that left 14 dead, The Times’ editorial follows an uptick in front-page calls for action on various issues. In March, The Indianapolis Star covered its front page with an editorial demanding Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the state legislature undo the damage it has caused by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In 2011, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania said it was time for Penn State’s president to step aside amid the school’s child abuse scandal. Slate, citing journalist and author Michele Weldon, has noted that the number of front-page items with opinion or analysis “increased sharply” between 2001 and 2004.

Although The Times devoted high-profile real estate to its argument, the editorial is woefully short on how such measures might overcome partisan gridlock and opposition from powerful interests like the National Rifle Association.

The NRA has battled assault weapon bans successfully for years, especially on the state level, and has prepared talking points to counter the ban. Chief among them: If assault weapons were banned, the NRA argues, buyers would switch to more easily concealed semi-automatic handguns, which are far more likely to be used in crimes.

The editorial also makes no mention of a previous attempt to ban assault weapons that had little effect. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994 prohibited the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammo magazines. The ban, signed by President Bill Clinton, lasted for 10 years before it was allowed to expire in 2004. The ban followed two high profile shootings: one in Stockton, California in 1989 and another in 1993. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan rallied Congress to pass the ban even though the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Justice Department concurred that assault weapons are far less likely to be used in crimes than handguns.

Don’t be surprised today when gun advocates push back against the Times’ editorial when it calls the AR-15 a “slightly modified combat rifle.” The difference between the AR-15 and a military combat rifle is more than slight: the weapon used in San Bernardino is a semi automatic .223 caliber rifle, while the fully automatic military M-16 or M-4 fires a 5.56mm round. The ammo is about the same size, but the 5.56mm cartridge has a higher velocity. Fully auto weapons are heavily taxed and regulated and have been since the FDR administration.

Today’s Washington Post includes a thorough calculation of which weapons are used in mass shootings. As you read through the ideas that the Times presented in its editorial, you will strengthen your thinking by understanding the details that advocates on both sides of the gun control debate tend to gloss over.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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