Live fire on the range

On the firing range at Mount Weather

The FEMA facility, Mount Weather in Northern Virginia off Route 601, is where Vice President Cheney sat out 9-11 underground. Above ground, there is a shooting range and I went there to shoot an AK-47 Assault Rifle – now some time ago.

This name, AK47, comes from the second version of an assault weapon designed by Soviet Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947. When fired in full-automatic mode, this AR fires continuously for every trigger pull. There have of course been design improvements and model changes since its origin.  The magazine’s capacity is 30 rounds. It can shoot 100 rounds a minute over an effective range of 400 meters.

You no doubt have seen movie stars shoving fully loaded magazines in cinematic fight scenes. But loading the magazine beforehand is something that has to be done carefully. You place a round between the feed lips until it locks inside the magazine, and you repeat this until the magazine is full. Like I said, 30 rounds. At the range, several of us loaded magazines for each other before we shot.

When I was standing at the firing line, the trigger felt sluggish and I didn’t fire. It didn’t feel right. The officer on the range said he didn’t see anything wrong. But, because I was persistent, we pulled out the magazine and one of the cartridges was nudging up against another. The magazine had been loaded wrong. The officer said, if forced by the trigger pull, it could have exploded in hand. But, of course, that didn’t happen. We caught it.

You may know, if you’ve ever fired one of these weapons, that it’s like a fire hose of lead running from your hands through the slight recoil in your shoulder to the target, almost like the target is pushing back – and then your magazine is spent – and you load another.

We’ve had a lot of pundits talk, with such bravado, about arming themselves, also teachers and janitors with all manner of weapons but they never talk about jammed weapons, much less how different it is to face a stationary paper target as opposed to someone who surprises you in armor and is coming at you carrying an even more powerful weapon than yours.

Perhaps this was best brought home when Navy Seal Chris Kyle, 38, the world’s most renowned sniper, who reportedly scored 150 combat kills, went to a rural Texas Shooting range last week southwest of Fort Worth.

Mr. Kyle was armed but he was shot dead by Eddie Ray Routh, a former Marine corporal, who served in Iraq and who repeatedly shot and killed Kyle and Chad Littlefield, 35, with a semiautomatic hand gun on the firing range.

Afterwards, Mr. Routh said, Kyle and Littlefield “were out shooting target practice and he couldn’t trust them so he killed them before they could kill him.”

This incident underscores how difficult it is for even a trained assassin to defend himself at a firing range. Yet some talk of math teachers and pastors packing heat in schools, churches and homes.

Next up is how this was a disaster waiting to happen. Early reports informed us that the Marine corporal suffered from PTSD. If we hadn’t learned anything else, we would think that inviting a serviceman with PTSD to a firing range was a really bad idea. If you haven’t read it, get a copy of Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.” It’s about this precise question – how to help a returning vet with PTSD – and how the psychological devastation of war has the same effect it has today as when Homer’s Iliad was first created. Shooting ranges are not recommended for recovery from PTSD.

We have since learned that Mr. Hough was released from a Veterans hospital, from a psychiatric center, over his parents’ objections, just four days before he gunned down Kyle and Littlefield.

I agree there is some right to arms in this nation but it is not a constitutional right separate from the necessity of a militia.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote in his 1833 abridged edition of his treatise on the Constitution how he lamented that, while “the importance of a well-regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline.”

Columbia Law Professor Richard Uviller wrote more recently that, with the evaporation of state militias all together, and their assumption into the Army, the Second Amendment, as a matter of constitutional interpretation, had become a “vacant and meaningless sequence of words.”

The Supreme Court appears to recognize a right of privacy in the home. That’s what’s left of the Court’s decision in Heller. But not much more. Beyond that, it is a right at common law and circumscribed as any right, particularly given the mischief that weapons can and have caused.

It is time we rolled up our sleeves and defined what we will allow or not as our nation’s code of violence – and not just with regard to arms.

The answer is most certainly not a coterie of gun-slinging teachers and janitors in schools, not when trained assassins can’t even defend themselves at a shooting range.

The answer is the rule of law, not the code of the claw.