John Cassidy writes: Here’s a little mental experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that the Tsarnaev brothers, instead of packing a couple of pressure cookers loaded with nails and explosives into their backpacks a week ago Monday, had stuffed inside their coats two assault rifles — Bushmaster AR-15s, say, of the type that Adam Lanza used in Newtown. What would have been different?
Well, for one thing, the brothers would probably have killed a lot more than three people at the marathon. AR-15s can fire up to forty-five rounds a minute, and at close range they can tear apart a human body. If the Tsarnaevs had started firing near the finish line, they might easily have killed dozens of spectators and runners before fleeing or being shot by the police.
The second thing that would have been different is the initial public reaction. Most Americans associate bomb attacks with terrorists. When they hear of mass shootings, they tend to think of sociopaths and unbalanced post-adolescents. If the Tsarnaevs had managed to carry out a gun massacre unharmed and escaped, their identities unknown, would the first presumption have been that the shooters were Islamic extremists? Or would people have looked in another direction?
Third, had the attack been carried out with assault rifles rather than explosives and nails, the gun-control bills that perished on Capitol Hill just two days after the Boston bombings may have met a different fate. After yet another gun massacre, this one on the streets of Boston, it’s hard to imagine the White House wouldn’t have been able to summon up sixty votes in the Senate for expanded background checks. The proposed ban on assault weapons would surely have gotten the support of more than forty senators, too, and the proposal to ban multi-round magazines would also have gained more support — that’s if the gun lobby hadn’t managed to postpone the votes until emotions had cooled, which it would certainly have tried to do.
Finally, there’s the question of what would have happened to the Tsarnaevs after they had been caught — that’s assuming one or both of them had survived the attack. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say things had developed pretty much as they did, with Tamerlan, the elder brother, being killed, and Dzhokhar, the younger brother, being wounded and captured. Would the government have charged him with conspiring to use “weapons of mass destruction,” a count that could lead to the death penalty? And if they had done this, what would it have meant for the future of assault weapons? Once they’d been classified as W.M.D.s, would that have not made a difference to the public debate about how freely available they should be? [Continue reading…]