We need MLK-style civil disobedience to stop assault rifles

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Will Bunch: Today, America needs assault-rifle abolitionists. When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail in 1963, he said, "Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

As the fallout continues from the worst mass shooting in American history -- and the latest in a string of gun atrocities over the last decade – one thing seems clear. Our current, paltry regulation of the firearms industry is surely bad public policy, but it’s also something much deeper than that. Our current gun regime – bought by the blood money of the industry-funded NRA – is immoral and unjust.

Just like previous stains on the national soul – such as slavery, and its evil cousin Jim Crow – gun violence in America has defied and helped to break our conventional politics. The carnage in Orlando made it clear that it’s past time for the American majority that believes in love and decency to defy the gun lobby by any non-violent means necessary. Since our political leaders seem incapable of action, it’s time to summon the spirit of King, Gandhi, and the unsung civil-rights hero James Lawson and think of ways that citizen activists can fight the gun lobby, the manufacturers and the merchants of rapid-fire death, and their political enablers.

Is there any hope left for our hopeless political establishment in Washington? You know, the ones who were called to act after a madman gunned down little kindergartners and 1st-graders in their Newtown classroom in 2012, and who did absolutely nothing? Perhaps. A tiny perhaps, but a perhaps.

This afternoon, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy -- still heartbroken after his constituents' blood was spilled four years ago, and now the most outspoken advocate for sane gun laws – took to the Senate floor to filibuster, aided by some of his Democratic colleagues. In the tradition of Jefferson Smith and my favorite political movie, they plan to keep talking until their colleagues vote on a measure that previously failed, to bar suspects on the terrorism watch list from buying weapons, and also on closing to so-called "gun show loophole" on background checks.

“There is a fundamental disconnect with the American people when these tragedies continue to occur and we just move forward with business as usual,” Murphy said in explaining the filibuster.

What Murphy is doing right now is truly heroic -- and how often do you get to say that about a member of Congress these days? But let's be honest -- it's also not nearly enough. America must -- at a very minimum -- get back to where we were a dozen years ago, when a number of assault weapons were banned. We need to make sure in particular that rapid-fire death implements like the Sig Sauer MCX or the AR-15, the rifles behind the murder of 49 people in Orlando and other mass killings, and any rifles like it,  are outlawed in any new gun legislation.

Let's review. Congress once had the willpower to take on assault rifles in the 1994 ban (in the measure that expired a decade later.) And it's clear that such a prohibition would not violate the 2nd Amendment; that comes from no less a legal authority than the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a fierce gun-rights advocate who nonetheless opined that the government can regulate "dangerous and unusual" weapons. As my colleague Sandy Shea noted on the Daily News editorial page this morning, the rate of mass shooting deaths tripled after Congress allowed the assault rifle ban to expire in 2004. As a result, a majority of Americans now say they support such a ban.

Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine, posted a picture of himself on Twitter from when he carried his military assault rifle on duty in the Persian Gulf. "I know assault rifles," he wrote. "I carried one in Iraq. They have no place on America's streets."

So...what is the problem? A broken political system. A broken political system flooded with dirty, blood-stained money. The NRA -- once a sportsmen's lobby that backed common-sense regulations, but now the arm of America's death profiteers -- spends millions sending its lackeys to Washington and keeping them there. The public is shut out of that equation.

So...what is to be done? I'm not the only person thinking about this, and about the other times in U.S. history that our system has failed. Today, Slate talked to an expert on the history of the abolitionist movement, to talk about the parallels between the fight against today's gun insanity and how slavery similarly fractured America in the 1850s.

"This hand-wringing that we have about gun violence is exactly the way many well-meaning people talked about slavery." Manisha Sinha told Slate. "They would say, 'Well, of course, we deplore it, but we don’t want to do anything about it.' For various reasons. And that’s why abolitionists were a minority, because they were willing to take on the system as it were, and to do something about it."

Today, America needs assault-rifle abolitionists. When King wrote from the Birmingham jail in 1963, he said "any law that degrades human personality is unjust." What could possibly degrade human personality more than a machine whose only seeming purpose is to kill as many people as possible before the police can respond?

What would civil disobedience look like? I don't know the full answer. Neither did Lawson, a conscientious objector who went to India in the 1950s to learn the principles of non-violent civil disobedience and how to apply them to the fight against segregation. What Lawson pioneered with his legendary students like John Lewis and Diane Nash -- the lunch-counter sit in -- launched a revolution for human rights in the country. We need that kind of innovation today to fight gun violence. I would say this...

If a big retail chain insists on selling weapons like the AR-15, boycott it.

If a fund or investment bank finances these merchants of death, divest it.

If an elected official can't follow the will of the people, protest him.

Today, we're all watching the filibuster in Washington, but merely watching won't cut it against the powerful gun lobby...or the forces of inertia. It was everyday people who beat Jim Crow, and it will only be everyday people who beat back the gun lobby. Or we'll all lose.