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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: America's exceptional problem with guns

On Saturday, I was in a remote area of Maryland, surrounded by water and woods, a place so quiet that even the occasional squawk of a blue jay seemed startling.

In the early afternoon, we heard gunfire — and not the single, distinct shots you might hear during deer season, but rapid-fire bursts of 10 to 15 rounds at a time. It sounded like someone taking target practice with a semi-automatic handgun or rifle. And I say that despite the speed of the rounds: It was hard to imagine anyone so quickly squeezing off each shot, which is what is required with semi-automatic firearms.

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My companion on the trip, a guy who owns guns, hunts and shoots clays, said the sound was from an automatic weapon — that is, a rifle set up like a machine gun, capable of firing multiple rounds with a single squeeze of the trigger. "Too fast to be semi-automatic," he said. Such arms were banned for civilian use decades ago, but it's not hard to imagine someone getting one and using it on private property in a sparsely populated area.

An hour later, we heard another few bursts, then no more.

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I've grown used to hearing this kind of gunfire in relatively remote areas from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland, to central and southwestern Pennsylvania. The country is full of semi-automatic, military-style rifles. Americans love them. Maryland's ban of them went into effect in October 2013, but the sales went off the charts ahead of the prohibition.

When I hear bursts of gunfire, I assume it's some citizen trying to get good at hitting a target with an AR-15 or maybe a handgun.

Until recently, I never would have assumed that such gunfire meant a mass killing was underway. Now, even when the sound hits my ear in a rural area, I will hold it as a possibility.

On Monday morning, I heard the recording of gunfire from the 32d floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino in Las Vegas. It sounded just like what my friend and I had heard on Saturday in the distant woods — but, of course, on an obscene scale.

Investigators in Las Vegas say 64-year-old Stephen Paddock shot 59 concertgoers to death with bursts of gunfire that left another 527 people injured. They say Paddock had 23 guns in his hotel room, some of them with scopes, and more at his home in Nevada. The Washington Post reported that an assault-style rifle, with a stand used to steady it for firing, was believed to have been used in the attack from Paddock's hotel room. Police said Paddock died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but not before establishing a gruesome record for carnage in a shooting spree.

I am no longer shocked.

I have moments of despondency about the state of the union. But I am not shocked anymore.

We like to think of the United States as an exceptional country, and we are. We are exceptional in our level of political, social and racial polarization. We are exceptional in our level of acceptance of gun ownership and in our refusal to do anything about the amount of violence inflicted on our own citizens by other citizens with guns.

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We are a nation bristling with hundreds of millions of firearms, cursed with a horrible rate of gun violence and led by weak-kneed, weak-brained politicians who would rather stoke fears than appeal to reason.

In Baltimore, we have shootings all the time. There apparently is an endless supply of guns and people willing to use them to protect their drug territories or to resolve their petty conflicts. And so we have one of the worst per capita homicide rates in the nation. In the past 90 days, Baltimore had 80 homicides by gun.

In August, police arrested a man in a fatal hit-and-run accident in West Baltimore. In his car, they say, they confiscated a handgun and a drum-shaped magazine capable of holding 50 bullets. Get that? Fifty bullets without reloading. The drum could be purchased online for $39.99.

Defenders of gun rights will say guns and magazines aren't the problem. Of course, they always say that. They live in America's 51st state: the state of denial. They ignore the inescapable truth: Guns make killing easier, from a distance or from up close, on a mass scale or one-on-one.

I know what you're thinking: It's too late. Rolling back gun ownership in gun-drenched America is impossible. It makes arresting climate change and global warming seem easy.

But we don't get to call ourselves an exceptional country unless we take on the biggest challenges, unless we acknowledge that we have a hideous problem, unless we find some way of stopping this insanity.

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Correction

Charged with an error: In my column of Oct. 1, I gave an incorrect birth date for Brooks Robinson. The Orioles legend turned 80 on May 18.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks


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