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Mike Pride: The ongoing perversion of the Second Amendment

  • Howard Unruh (center) is shown with police after his capture in Camden, N.J., on Sept. 6, 1949. AP file



Monitor editor emeritus
Sunday, November 12, 2017

One morning in the late summer of 1949, a World War II veteran named Howard B. Unruh walked down the 3200 block of River Street in Camden, N.J. – his block – blowing away his neighbors with a Luger. In 12 minutes he killed 13 people and wounded three others. The victims included a new bride, nine other adults and three children.

After Unruh was caught, Mike Berger, the reporter who covered the story for the New York Times, managed to get a look at Unruh’s room. He described it carefully, knowing his readers would want to sift through the details looking for anything that might explain the massacre.

“On the peeling walls,” the reporter wrote, “he had crossed pistols, crossed German bayonets, pictures of armored artillery in action. Scattered about the chamber were machetes, a Roy Rogers pistol, ashtrays made of German shells, clips of 30-30 cartridges for rifle use and a host of varied war souvenirs.”

Although Unruh liked to shoot, neighbors described him as a soft-spoken and mild man who regularly read the Bible. A story much later in Smithsonian magazine described a distressing habit he had developed while fighting in Europe. Each time he killed a German, he made notes listing the time and place. Sometimes he described the corpse.

Possibly it provides some comfort to know that senseless mass killings have been a fixture in American life for a long time. But think of the novelty for people in 1949 trying to figure out who Unruh was, why he went on a rampage, why it appealed to him to slaughter innocent people who just happened onto the path he chose.

Today it is no less sickening to contemplate these questions, but there is a numbing familiarity to it. The where, when and how provide a kind of novelty, but we know a lot about how things are going to unfold.

We know, for example, that as the facts dribble in, cable news channels and digital news sources will fill the hours with speculation and expert testimony that will be repetitious, unedifying and often wrong. We know that once there is an official death toll, it is unlikely to rise much because trauma care is so much better in this country than it used to be.

But we keep watching to learn the shooter’s identity and to try to figure out why he killed. Usually there really is no answer to the why, or at least no satisfactory answer. If it is retribution, a rationale for choosing the particular victims is absent. Proximity and convenience are common factors. If prejudices and politics come into play, the mass murderers create sympathy for the victims. Murderous hatred may attract a few people – obviously it does – but it disgusts most of us.

The media focus on the victims. They humanize them and create the sense that normal, innocent people – good people – are dead for no other reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There but for the grace ...

We know all this. We have gone through it again and again – the tears, the shrines, the candles in the night, the smiles of the living, now riddled with bullets.

And one other certainty in the pattern: “Now is not the time to discuss gun control.”

If the subject comes up, those who resist the idea of banning private ownership of military-style assault weapons are ever-ready with the bromides. Guns don’t kill people, etc. I’m sure that if any of them are reading this piece, they’re thinking: Aha, in your opening paragraphs Mr. Unruh packed only a Luger when he went on his shooting spree. Or hey, the New York mass murderer a few days ago drove a rented truck. What are we s’posed to do – ban trucks?

But there is only one point to my writing this: It is time – way past time – for this country to stand up against the perversion of the Second Amendment by the Supreme Court and Congress and the moneyed power of the National Rifle Association.

Private ownership of military-style assault weapons is too dangerous to you and your loved ones to be legal. Allowing it makes no more sense than giving private citizens the right to own bazookas or grenade-launchers. The Supreme Court made a purely political decision when it decoupled the clauses of the Second Amendment.

Read it and see what you think: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

A convoluted sentence, worth further amendment, but it was never meant to allow private ownership of any and all arms. Tanks, missiles, rocket launchers, semiautomatic assault weapons easily converted for automatic fire – all are military arms only – or should be.

Military veterans and responsible gun owners know this better than anyone. In the Live Free or Die state, they should be first to stand up for what is right. If they did, perhaps Democrats would regain their backbone on this life-and-death issue and sensible Republicans, a sadly shrinking lot, would also see the light.

(Mike Pride is the editor emeritus of the “Monitor” and the retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He lives in Bow and Goshen.)