The Charlotte police tragedy shows we must restrict automatic weapons

As a career law enforcement officer, I share the concern for public safety and understand the need to balance the Second Amendment with protecting vulnerable people.
Police investigate the scene where multiple law enforcement officers were shot on April 29 in east Charlotte. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/The Charlotte Observer/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Police investigate the scene where multiple law enforcement officers were shot on April 29 in east Charlotte. (Khadejeh Nikouyeh/The Charlotte Observer/TNS)

On April 29, four Charlotte police officers were killed and four more were seriously injured when serving a warrant for a felon in possession of a firearm. Sadly in the United States, we are tragically used to such casualty numbers from a shooting involving a assault-style rifles. However this wasn’t a shooting targeting unsuspecting, unarmed school children or churchgoers or people buying groceries. It involved highly trained law enforcement officers who were prepared for conflict. Yet the results were the same.

As a career law enforcement officer, I share the concern for public safety and understand the need to balance the Second Amendment with protecting vulnerable individuals. It’s important to recognize that the Constitution is a living document that must be interpreted in light of changing societal circumstances. Though the right to bear arms is an important aspect of American democracy, it’s equally important to ensure that this right does not infringe on the safety and well-being of all citizens, particularly those who might be more vulnerable to gun violence.

The vast majority of us find the status quo of gun violence untenable and support basic, constitutional steps to address this issue. Policies such as universal background checks, red-flag laws, increasing funding for mental health services and providing resources for community-based violence prevention programs are proven to save lives and have strong, bipartisan support.

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Credit: handout

But the tragedy in Charlotte underscores the life-or-death need for reinstating an assault weapons ban, as the GOSAFE Act — the Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Firearms Exclusion Act currently under consideration in the Senate would. GOASFE would prohibit the sale, transfer and receipt of gas-operated semiautomatic rifles and large-capacity magazines that hold 10 or more rounds of ammunition. These are the types of rifles that, especially when paired with large-capacity magazines, allow mass shooters to unleash destructive, rapid-fire barrages on unsuspecting victims in seconds.

The federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 and the current bans in 10 states and Washington, D.C., focus on the military-style “features” of firearms, including pistol grips and threaded barrels. The GOSAFE Act, instead, focuses on what makes semiautomatic firearms, including AR-15s and AK-47s, so deadly: the speed of their gas operating systems. It is this operating system — how the gun cycles and prepares rounds for firing in rapid succession — that enables shooters to inflict the most damage in the shortest amount of time.

The gun lobby has long complained that traditional “features test” assault weapons bans focus on “cosmetic features,” such as a weapon’s pistol grip, folding stock or threaded barrel, but fail to measure danger. This criticism has never been accurate — these are military-style features carried over from military-style weapons. The GOSAFE Act addresses it head on.

The GOSAFE Act effectively targets deadly semiautomatic rifles while providing certain exemptions for firearms commonly used for hunting, self-defense and recreational shooting. These exemptions are important to help build broad support among lawmakers, especially those who haven’t supported legislation that would regulate assault weapons.

It’s important to note that any regulations or safeguards put in place must be carefully crafted to ensure that they do not disproportionately impact certain groups, such as people of color or those living in poverty. The goal should be to create a safer society for all through evidence-based gun safety policies while also upholding the principles of justice and equality. Until then, these avoidable tragedies will continue and the gun industry will profit while communities are left to pick up the pieces and families are shattered.

We do not have to accept this as normal. It is within our power to change it.

Rodney Bryant, a former Atlanta Police chief, is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.