You can add Orlando to the list of mass-shooting sites (including San Bernardino, Newtown, and Aurora) where the semiautomatic AR-15 was the murderer’s weapon of choice. Since such weapons were once heavily restricted under the so-called Assault Weapons Ban enacted as part of the 1994 federal crime bill (which expired after ten years), it is natural to speculate that a ban or some other significant restrictions could return. And indeed, Hillary Clinton favors a revived assault-weapons ban, which was a signature initiative of her husband’s administration, along with the so-called Brady Bill requirements of background checks for all sorts of gun purchases.
But even as the AR-15 returns again and again to mass-murder sites, the impetus to bring back the ban has stalled. And in contrast to certain other gun-regulation issues (notably efforts to address loopholes in the national background-check system), public opinion no longer clearly supports the ban. A December 2015 ABC–Washington Post survey showed Americans opposing a revived ban by a 45-53 margin. That’s quite a change from public opinion in the year the original ban was enacted, when Americans favored it 80-18. The same 2015 survey showed a plurality (47-42) of Americans agreeing with the gun lobby’s longtime argument that more people carrying guns legally was a better response to terrorist attacks than stricter gun laws. And that, of course, has become the default drive position of the Republican Party and its putative 2016 presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Trump, as we all know, has other “ideas” for fighting terrorist gun violence beyond arming everyone in sight: the overt targeting by law enforcement of “suspect” categories of people like Muslims, along with an allegedly temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
One of Trump’s arguments against an assault-weapons ban is that there are “millions” of such weapons already in private hands in the U.S. That is quite true (one unofficial estimate is that there are 3 million AR-15s in circulation). Even the 1994 ban grandfathered in weapons manufactured earlier. Seven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York) and the District of Columbia currently maintain some sort of assault-weapons bans. But the last effort in Congress to bring back a federal version, shortly after the Newtown massacre in 2013, attracted only 40 Senate votes, 20 short of what would have been needed to overcome a filibuster.
Gun-control advocates often wonder how many more massacres we must endure before the power of the gun lobby is broken. As long as one of the two major parties has what might be described as a theological opposition to any gun-regulation measures other than enforcing existing laws, action to add to those laws is very unlikely. But beyond the NRA-GOP alliance, if half or more of Americans continue to believe more AR-15s is the answer to the slaughter of innocents by AR-15s, then that’s what we will get.