Gun control will not stop mass shootings

Enact an outright ban on gas operated weapons if you want less killing

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published October 4, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Police officers and medical personnel stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 (AP/John Locher)
Police officers and medical personnel stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 (AP/John Locher)

Forget that in the first 276 days of this year there have already been 273 mass shootings, killing 346 and wounding 1581. Forget that the shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night, with 59 dead, was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, at least since the last largest shooting in American history, which was last year in Orlando, with 49 dead, which was the largest since Virginia Tech in 2007, with 32 dead, which narrowly eclipses the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in 2012 with 28 dead.

Forget that the Las Vegas shooter had something like 49 weapons in his hotel room and homes in Nevada. Forget that some of the rifles are being described as “AR-15 type” fitted with “bi-pod legs” and a “magnification scope,” and that at least one rifle is described as an “AK-47 type” with a “stand to steady it and improve accuracy” according to the Washington Post. Forget numerous fully loaded “high capacity magazines” were found in the hotel room, and forget that one report, on Fox News no less, quoted a “law enforcement source” as describing at least one of the weapons as “automatic.”

All you have to know is these two words: “gas operated.” Because it is gas operated rifles that make these mass shootings possible. Gas operated systems are used in all semiautomatic and automatic weapons including the ubiquitous “assault style” rifles employed by the shooter in Las Vegas on Sunday night. What does “gas operated” mean? Well, it describes a mechanical process by which a small amount of the gas produced by the explosion of gunpowder used to propel a bullet is harnessed to power a piston which drives a mechanism which successively ejects the spent cartridge, cocks the trigger, and loads a fresh, unspent bullet into the chamber ready to fire. Usually the gas produced by the exploded gunpowder escapes through a port, or tiny hole in the barrel, under high pressure before the bullet has left the barrel. After this portion of gas has been used to eject the spent cartridge, cock the weapon and load another cartridge, the rest of the gas escapes out the end of the barrel and the gun is ready to fire again.

The words “semiautomatic” describe a weapon that fires once every time the shooter pulls the trigger. “Automatic” is the word which describes a weapon that fires continuously once you pull the trigger. In other words, the weapon fires, ejects, reloads, cocks and fires again and again and again as long as your finger depresses the trigger. Only after you let up your finger pressure on the trigger does the gun stop firing.

I listened closely to the sound of the weapons captured on cell phone video. The sound I heard was that of automatic gunfire, the very rapid high-pitched sound of an AR-15 style 5.56 mm rifle on full auto, and the slower, deeper sound of an AK-47 style 7.62 mm rifle. What I heard was an automatic weapon being fired until the shooter had expended all the rounds in a fairly large magazine and then either re-loaded or picked up another fully loaded automatic rifle and continued firing. John Cohen, a former undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security, was quoted on ABC News as agreeing with this assessment. "Listening to the video, it sounds like the weapons were fully automatic," said Cohen. "[The bullets] were coming out very quick, and you heard a large number of shots very quickly. That would be very difficult to do with anything other than an automatic weapon.”

Much has been made in the last day or so about how the Las Vegas shooter could have come by the weapons he used. He is said to have gone to a number of gun stores in four different states and bought rifles. The question remains, if some of them were fully automatic, how did he come such weapons? The answer is, he could have gotten them in any number of ways. He could have bought fully automatic rifles on the black market. While we have heard from several gun store owners who sold him weapons, we don’t know if he attended any gun shows, where if you know the right person, or pay off the right person, you can be directed to an individual willing to sell you automatic weapons illegally “under the table,” usually at a rather high price. No questions asked, no records kept. Since the Las Vegas shooter has been described by his brother as a “multi-millionaire,” this wouldn’t have posed much of a problem for him. He could have purchased semiautomatic rifles of the AR-15, M-4 or AK-47 variety and had them modified to make them automatic by someone with the equipment and knowledge necessary to accomplish the task. This, too, would not have been difficult. Conversion kits are available from shady sites on the dark and not-so-dark areas of the internet. It’s not that you would call common knowledge, but it’s out there. I have personally met several people who can obtain the equipment and have the knowledge necessary to convert weapons from semiauto to fully-auto.

The reason that the words “gas operated” are so important is because they are the only words the Congress of the United States needs to use in order to pass a law making these weapons of mass killing illegal. Forget the words “assault style.” Meaningless. All “assault style” describes is the exterior design of a rifle, usually to resemble a military M-16, M-4, or AK-47, but including many other designs and countless manufacturers. Gas operated rifles of the type used by the Las Vegas shooter are military weapons designed for and capable of being used in combat in war by soldiers. It’s not necessary on any level for civilians to own or operate these weapons of war. Oh, I can already hear the yelps and screams from gun owners and the National Rifles Association. But these are “sporting” rifles! We use them for hunting and target shooting and – wait for it – self-defense! Of course you do! You use them for those purposes because you can walk into any gun store or gun show in America and buy them. But they are not necessary. You can go hunting or target shooting with a rifle that cocks and shoots every time you work the bolt, or pull the lever action, or pump the ejection/reloading mechanism on the barrel. Then you can shoot the thing again.

You want to know why you don’t need a semiautomatic or automatic rifle to go hunting or target shooting? Because neither the deer or target is shooting back, that’s why. But what about self-defense, you ask? What I say is this: if you are a “good guy” and you are facing an armed intruder or a mugger or other type of “bad guy,” you’d better hit him the first time you shoot, because if you don’t, you’re the one who’s going to suffer, not him. Finding incidents wherein a civilian has used a privately owned weapon to either deter or shoot such a “bad guy” is like voter fraud. They say it’s out there, but nobody can find it. Using a gun for self-defense is largely myth. About 30,000 Americans are killed every year. That’s not a myth.

The Supreme Court in District of Columbia v Heller upheld the right of American citizens to own and bear arms, specifying that loaded firearms may be kept within the home, and in McDonald v City of Chicago, the Court affirmed the right to keep and use firearms for self-defense. But in neither of these cases did the Supreme Court specify the types or numbers of weapons permitted for ownership or use, and in subsequent cases, the court has refused opportunities to review laws against carrying concealed weapons.

The problem with gas operated weapons is that they are very, very dangerous. They are inherently dangerous, of course, because they are capable of killing people. But they are also dangerous because of the design of their rapid fire mechanisms and because of the nature of the humans who use them. In order for one of these weapons to be safe when it is loaded with a magazine full of bullets, two things must happen: the safety must be on, and it must not have a live cartridge in the chamber. But even if these safety precautions are taken, it’s still dangerous because dropping the weapon might chamber a round and knock the safety off, causing it to fire. The United States Military considers the gas operated weapons it issues to soldiers to be so dangerous that loaded firearms are not permitted on military bases here in this country, or even on bases in combat zones abroad. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, every time we entered an Army basecamp, our convoys had to pull over to the side of the road short of the camp entrance, soldiers had to dismount and walk over to barrels full of sand, and pointing the barrels of their M-16’s or M-4’s into the barrels, they had to remove loaded magazines from their rifles and clear the chamber of live rounds. Only when their weapons were completely unloaded and the bullets were put away were they safe.

I was on several small platoon and company-size basecamps in some very hostile territory outside of the outlaw towns of Tal Afar and Hammam Ali in Iraq, and even there, even surrounded on all sides by insurgents that were busy trying to kill American soldiers every single day and night, the American soldiers I was with had to unload their weapons and walk around with them unloaded the entire time they were at the basecamps. Only if they were standing guard on the perimeter of the basecamp, or after they had cleared the entrance and were outside the camp were they allowed to load their weapons.

At stateside bases, the restrictions are even more severe. The Army’s combat weapons like pistols and rifles are stored in locked weapons rooms when they are not being used at a firing range, during a training exercise, or being cleaned and serviced by the soldiers they are assigned to. When I was a Second Lieutenant platoon leader in an infantry company at Fort Carson, Colorado, one my additional duties was “Weapons Officer.” Every single day, it was my job to inspect the weapons room and make sure that all weapons and ammunition assigned to the company were present and accounted for. When this was done, I had to sign a Department of Defense document attesting that I had inspected and accounted for the weapons and ammunition. Falsifying this document, or lying about my inspection, was punishable by up to five years confinement in the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. That’s how seriously the Army took the safekeeping of its weapons of war.

That’s what these gas operated rifles are: weapons of war. I don’t care what is eventually revealed about the specific 23 weapons the Las Vegas shooter carried into his hotel room, along with what police described as “thousands of rounds” of ammunition. All of them will be found to be gas-operated weapons of war. The United States Army has always found it sufficient to arm one soldier with one weapon. You know things are fucked up in this country when a man with a grudge, or a mental illness, or simply a death wish can walk into a number of stores over a fairly short period of time and buy 49 guns, more weapons than were assigned to my infantry platoon in the Army or any of the platoons I was with in Iraq.

That’s all the Congress needs to know in order to write legislation that will make it far more difficult for mass killings to be carried out in the future. Ban the sale of gas operated weapons. Ban the importation and manufacture in the United States of new gas operated weapons except those for military or police use, and ban the sale or resale of currently existing gas operated weapons. The Las Vegas shooter apparently bought all of his weapons in contemplation of using them to shoot up the concert on Sunday night. If he had been unable to legally purchase his arsenal of gas-operated rifles, he would have been unable to kill 59 and wound over 500. Nor would the shooters in Orlando, or Newtown, or Virginia Tech, or Aurora Colorado have been able to so easily carry out their mass murders. If each of those shooters had to cock his weapon every time he fired it, far fewer people would have died.

So forget all the bullshit about “gun control.” Only if the Congress passes a law banning the manufacture, import, and sale of gas operated weapons except for use by the military and police will this be a safer country. The United States Army knows how dangerous these weapons are and controls their possession and use accordingly. It’s time the rest of the country followed the military’s example. One mass killing after another has proven that gas operated weapons are way too dangerous for civilians to own and use. Ban them.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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