The Times is appalled by murders and terror, and especially appalled by instruments used in the latest act of terror in San Bernardino.
The Times could take some national pride in the fact that we as a nation have made amazing progress in curbing the scourge of gun violence, cutting it nearly in half in the past couple of decades.
But they do not take that tack. Rather, when they get to concrete (sort of) proposals after expressing their dismay with murders and tools that can be used to murder, they declare that "Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens."
If the Times got its way, their confiscation program would almost certainly require a buyback, as in much-lauded Australia. Enormous law enforcement effort and time would have to go into trying to enforce the prohibition as well, if it were to have any meaning.
While the Times is not specific about exactly what weapons it wants to ban and confiscate beyond the specific models used in San Bernardino, Slate did some rough calculations back in 2013 that likely over 3.5 million such rifles or substantially similar ones are in circulation in the U.S.
Such rifles cannot reasonably be expected to be hidden on one's person and thus ought not give law enforcement any extra reason to search persons moving forward with this new, massively distributed, contraband contaminating America. Still, there would surely be some unpredictable but bad effect in using the power of law enforcement to search people and their property to uncover their now-banned weapons. Our society being what it is, such efforts would likely impact the less-well-off and less well-connected the most, and the most violently.
What the Times is calling for is, beyond its countable costs in money and effort and the likely further erosion of civil liberties, also (as they surely know) calling for a massive political civil war the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time. The "assault weapon" ban of 1994-2004, though pointless, just barred the future making and selling of such weapons, and didn't try to confiscate existing ones.
A huge proportion of the American people will be very upset if the government attempts a mass national confiscation of a widely and almost entirely peacefully used weapon. (Despite what the Times said, in nearly every case, no "good of their fellow citizens" would be furthered by an American giving up a weapon, since in nearly every case that weapon would never harm anyone else.)
So, what is the size of this problem, worth such cost in treasure, liberty, and domestic tranquility to the Times?
According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2014, rifles—the entire category of rifles, of which the ones the Times wants to ban at such great cost are but a subset—were used to commit 248 murders. That's in a country of around 319 million people. That's around 2 percent of the total number of homicides that year.
While the official figure, it is doubtless a bit too low. The numbers for Alabama and Illinois are known to be too low, because of reporting gaps. That said, the FBI figures there do not break down the category "rifle" to the specific ones that the Times targets, likely akin to the "assault weapons" that were banned moving forward in America for a decade, with no appreciable effect on public safety.
So the total number of those 248 (or slightly more) rifle murders actually caused using the ones the Times wants to expend all that effort into banning is much smaller than 248. Since the effort could not actually succeed in removing all such rifles from the hands of people with propensities to murder, and even if it did those murderous types would have other means to murder if they chose, the effort would not actually save all of that subset-of-248 lives.
The move the Times proposes with such ceremony and passion is so purely symbolic, so driven by a superstitious desire to placate fate by acting as if it is doing something to stop grotesque acts of terror like in San Bernardino, and so motivated by a desire to sock it to a huge proportion of their fellow citizens over a contentious and heated political and constitutional issue, and is being offered with such emphasis (first front page editorial in nearly a century) that one could imagine the Times is only proposing such a move as a stalking horse for seeing if the government can get away with successfully banning and confiscating a class of weapon, by starting with one with such a tenuous connection with public safety on a national level.
It is likely that there is literally no other political crusade on which the Times could call for so much expense and turmoil for such a small benefit—again, except for the benefit of showing Americans who believe that they have an inherent right to own weapons of self-defense if used in a peaceful fashion, as the staggeringly overwhelmingly vast majority of them are, that the Times and those in government they speak for have the power and will to give it to them, good and hard.