As one writer put it, Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old responsible for 10 deaths last week in Buffalo, New York, “had been able to buy an AR-15-style assault rifle, with just a little more effort than it’d take to buy a burrito”. Despite a partial state ban on assault weapons and “red flag” laws allowing courts to remove weapons from owners who are seen as a threat, Gendron, although hospitalised last year for making a murder-suicide threat, was free to walk into a local shop to buy an AR-15 (“ArmaLite Rifle”) over the counter.
State restrictions meant, however, that he had to cross into Pennsylvania to obtain a high-capacity 30-round magazine.
So far this year there have been 203 mass shootings – incidents in which four or more were injured or killed – in the United States. Automatic weapons have been implicated in a quarter of deaths and three quarters of non-fatal injuries in the mass shootings in the decade to 2018. Their sale is prohibited in only seven states.
The US is, meanwhile, in the middle of a gun-buying boom that shows no sign of letting up – the annual number of firearms manufactured has nearly tripled since 2000 in a country home to around 400 million guns.
Gun control opponents insist that semi-automatic rifles are essential for hunting, but as one former gun company executive retorted last week, it is like arguing that you need a Formula One racecar to go shopping. And the Buffalo shooting gave the lie to the repeated claim by gun advocates that the best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The supermarket had a good guy, an armed security guard, who couldn’t stop ashooter wearing body armour and was himself killed.
US president Joe Biden has renewed his call for a complete ban on military-style assault weapons. Congress did ban them in 1994, in a law with a 10-year expiration. After it expired, the number of mass shootings increased. But there is no prospect of renewal in a Congress seriously in hock to the National Rifle Association.