IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Biden's focus on AR-15s wasn't the speech Americans most needed to hear

It’s not the scariest looking weapons that are being used to kill the most children.
Photo illustration of rifles on display at a NRA convention and President Joe Biden.
In a Thursday night address, President Joe Biden compared the battlefields where American soldiers to classrooms in America which have sometimes been "killing fields."MSNBC; Getty Images

In a Thursday night address in which he said “Enough!” almost a dozen times, President Joe Biden ticked off a list of particularly deadly mass shootings, starting with Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and including Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida; last week’s slaughter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and, even more recently, the Wednesday night murderous attack inside the Natalie Medical Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you rank the deadliest U.S. mass shootings with Columbine as your starting point, Columbine is far down the list.

The irony of Biden starting with a crime from nearly a quarter century ago to make the point that America has seen enough is that America claimed it had seen enough way back then, too.

Every time one of these things happens,” a reporter said to then-President Bill Clinton in 1999, “we go through this chorus of hand-wringing and say we've got to stop it from happening again.” Yet another reporter told Clinton that “there seems to be an epidemic of these kinds of incidents now.” Clinton declined to call the problem an “epidemic” but did say that Columbine’s death toll made it stand out.

But if you rank the deadliest U.S. mass shootings with that massacre as your starting point, Columbine is far down the list. There have been nine shootings with more murder victims and two others with as many. Six of those shootings have been deadlier than the one in Uvalde. The massacre at Sandy Hook was not only deadlier than the one at Robb Elementary, but also its victims were younger. What reason, then, is there to believe that we’ll look back at Uvalde as a tipping point?

That’s not meant as a criticism of Biden’s speech. He dutifully appealed to Americans’ sense of decency and our claim that the deaths of little children hit us the hardest. Speaking during a week that began with Memorial Day, the president made a direct link between U.S. service members “who paid the ultimate price on battlefields around the world” and those students in Uvalde, “innocent victims, murdered in a classroom that had been turned into a killing field.”

He added that “there are too many other schools, too many other everyday places that have become killing fields, battlefields here in America.” The war analogy is apt because the people we’re currently mourning — grocery shoppers in Buffalo, third- and fourth-graders in Uvalde, hospital personnel in Tulsa — were killed with a weapon befitting a combat zone.

Unfortunately, the analogy is also apt because it’s impossible to grieve every casualty or even every mass-casualty event during a war. We’re at the point in this uniquely American war where there have to be really old victims, really young victims, victims in a house of worship, really old or really young victims in a house of worship or a really high number of victims for us to register a strong emotional response.

What Biden proposed in Thursday night’s address — banning the sale of AR-15-style weapons to those younger than 21, penalties and liability for those who don’t properly secure their weapons, expanded background checks and elimination of the law shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits — likely strike most Americans as reasonable. But as MSNBC columnist Dean Obeidallah pointed out in a recent column, the conservative Supreme Court isn’t likely to look kindly upon a law that restricts the sale of AR-15-style weapons. More significantly, there’s no chance of there even being such a law so long as certain senators consider protecting the filibuster more important than protecting the lives of children.

Biden found it necessary to say Thursday that nothing he proposes is “about taking away anyone’s guns. It’s not about vilifying gun owners.” He even said he respects the “culture,” whatever that means, of “lawful gun owners.” The president’s statement that he’s not proposing anything extreme is true, but that’s also the problem. If America doesn’t do something extreme, what hope is there?

“According to new data just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Biden said, “guns are the No. 1 killer of children in the United States of America. The No. 1 killer. More than car accidents. More than cancer.

“Over the last two decades, more school-aged children have died from guns than on-duty police officers and active-duty military combined.”

The Republican argument that a proposal to limit the sales of assault-style weapons won't do much has the distinction of being a bad-faith argument that’s true.

In the main, those children are not being killed by AR-15-style weapons, which means that restricting their sale to those 21 and older, or even banning them outright, will do little to save children’s lives.

Dr. Patrick Carter, co-director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, told NPR in April that there were a record 45,222 U.S. firearm deaths in 2020 and that 4,357 of those who died (almost 10 percent) were children.

“Most commonly what makes the news is these horrific mass shootings,” he said, “but they are a small aspect of the overall problem. The smallest portion are the mass shootings. ... it's these daily deaths that are occurring making up the totality of what we are seeing."

The Republican argument that a proposal to limit the sales of assault-style weapons won't do much has the distinction of being a bad-faith argument that’s true. It’s true because of the statistics that Carter cites. It’s bad faith because Republicans have shown no interest in doing anything that might be effective. For 25 years, they even prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research related to gun violence.

In the attempt to seem reasonable, Democrats are forever shaking their fists at the scariest looking weapons without acknowledging that it’s not the scariest looking weapons that are being used to kill the most children. And for all their timidity, they’re not even getting what little they’re asking for.

Biden is right to say “Enough!” but those who care about saving children’s lives (and adults’ lives for that matter) need to say enough to conversations that focus almost exclusively on the big guns. In this modern political climate, Democrats addressing the deadliness of handguns won’t be any more successful than their attempts to address the deadliness of assault-style weapons. But at least they’ll be on record as trying to keep the greatest number of children from being killed and not just trying to keep children from being killed in bunches.