Years ago, incidents of mass murder by gun-wielding assailants were followed by calls for tighter gun control. Sadly, would-be advocates of gun laws barely bother anymore.
Everybody knows that members of Congress -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- are terrified of the political clout of the National Rifle Association. In the wake of the mass murder at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' community event in Tucson, Ariz., critics are calling for pleasanter political discourse rather than fewer guns. The Boston Globe even carried an op-ed calling for greater gun safety -- not for tighter controls on guns.
It's time to state the obvious: No safety rules, no inspections of rifles or demonstrations on how to keep your weapon well-oiled, will prevent a madman from killing innocents.
The hostile political climate may conceivably nourish violence, particularly in Arizona, where anti-immigrant sentiment is encouraged by many officeholders. But it's doubtful that a more genteel political culture would pacify a would-be attacker with a history of mental illness.
The surest way to prevent such acts of terror is to halt the distribution of semi-automatic weapons. Semi-automatic weapons -- those that can be shot rapidly with repeated pulls of the trigger, without stopping to reload each time -- should be banned, for good, in the United States.
Because of the NRA, calls for banning semi-automatic weapons have been made to sound extremist. I wonder how they sound to the parents of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl curious enough about government to attend Giffords' event, where she was slain. I also wonder if gun-rights absolutists were glad that the accused killer, Jared Lee Loughner, was able to exercise his supposed Second Amendment rights.
Thanks to pressure from the NRA, the federal law enacted in 1994 that restricted the sale of certain semi-automatic firearms was permitted to expire in 2004. (Whether that complicated law would have stopped Loughner is unclear, only underscoring the need for an unambiguous and strict new ban.) As for state gun laws, Arizona's are among the most lenient in the country.
No matter the legalistic distortions of the gun lobby, there is no constitutional right to own a semi-automatic weapon. The Constitution establishes the right to bear arms for a "well-regulated militia." Well-regulated militias do not require that independent civilians be permitted to possess such weaponry.
This principle is recognized in everyday law. No court would allow you to fill a tub of kerosene and spread it over the highway, nor would it allow you to park an Army tank in your garage. The principle that weapons of mass destruction must be kept out of public hands is well established.
Only in the case of guns has the NRA been able to twist the meaning of the Constitution so that a Glock 9 mm pistol becomes a false icon of the American Revolution. In the 18th century, there was fear of a standing army. The Constitution's "well-regulated" militia was viewed as protection from a would-be marauding general.
It's doubtful that the framers envisioned people possessing private weapons, since that would have detracted from a militia's effectiveness. As the conservative jurist Richard Posner wrote in the New Republic in 2008, debunking the supposed protections of the Second Amendment:
"The text of the amendment, whether viewed alone or in light of the concerns that actuated its adoption, creates no right to the private possession of guns for hunting or other sport, or for the defense of person or property."
Even if legislators believe that people should be able to own weapons for hunting, sport or self-defense, there's no plausible call for permitting semi-automatics such as those used at Columbine High School, at Fort Hood and now in Tucson. No one needs a semi-automatic weapon to fend off a prowler. No sportsman deserving of the term hunts with an assault weapon.
Political leaders who preach about stopping terrorism and commit young lives to fight and die overseas don't give a second thought to stopping the means of murder on our own streets. It's been years since Congress has even debated a serious piece of gun-control legislation.
In the recent election for Congress, Blue-Dog Democrats often outdid their GOP rivals in demonstrating their gun-worshipping credentials. Now that real blood has been shed again, will President Obama, as well as state and federal lawmakers, have the guts to take a stand?
Roger Lowenstein, author of "The End of Wall Street," is a Bloomberg News columnist.