By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
February 19, 2013
Chris Bartocci is circling the aisles at The Gun Store in Las Vegas, a firearms mega-mart lined wall-to-wall with handguns and rifles and shotguns of every design and price range. There are cheap utilitarian pistols and delicately-engraved collectibles with four-figure price tags; classic wooden-stock deer rifles and pistol-gripped AK-47s.
In the back of the store, crowds are lined up to rent high-powered weaponry – even machine guns – for a chance to obliterate paper bad guys. For $500, the "Shotgun Wedding" package comes with a legal marriage ceremony in the VIP firing range, capped off with a round of his-and-hers shooting by the bride and groom.
Bartocci has come to The Gun Store to talk about assault weapons, and along one wall are a dozen rifles, most with a classic military appearance – black matte finish, pistol grip, large ammunition magazine. These firearms are at the heart of a fierce debate in Connecticut and beyond about restricting or banning the sort of weapon used in the Sandy Hook massacre. They are also frustratingly difficult to define.
Bartocci literally wrote the book on these guns, with his 2004 reference work, Black Rifles 2. So how many of these fearsome-looking guns are actually assault weapons?
"To the uneducated weapons person, they would say they all were," Bartocci said, scanning the rifles. "To somebody who is familiar with small arms and the U.S. military's definition of an assault rifle: none of them."
That divide – the inability to agree even on definitions – is reflective of the gulf between the two sides of the gun debate as lawmakers grapple with a possible assault-weapons ban. Last month, Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was grazed twice in the head during the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, traveled to Danbury to help deliver hundreds of thousands of petitions to the Wal-Mart closest to Newtown, pressing the retailer to stop selling rifles like the .223 semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle used with horrific effect by Adam Lanza.
"Do we really want military-grade people killers on the shelf next to the strollers? I don't think so," she said.
Gunmakers prefer a decidedly more benign description, calling them "modern sporting rifles," though the term has found limited traction beyond the industry.
It's more than a semantic battle, and illustrates the difficulty of drafting legislation that is both meaningful and comprehensible.
In the eyes of the industry, the term "assault weapon" or "assault rifle" applies only to fully automatic weapons that fire continuously and extremely quickly with a single pull of the trigger. There are severe restrictions on civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons, and most are used by the military or law enforcement. But manufacturers of those fully automatic weapons also make cosmetically similar civilian versions that shoot only in semi-automatic mode, in which one bullet is fired with each pull of the trigger.
Lawmakers in Connecticut and elsewhere have defined some – but not all - of those semi-automatic rifles as banned "assault weapons." Lanza's Bushmaster, for example, was not a prohibited assault weapon under Connecticut law, leaving some legislators keen to draft tighter legislation.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, co-sponsor of a federal assault-weapons ban, watched earlier this month as State Police Sgt. Shawn Corey quickly emptied a 30-round magazine from a semi-automatic, military-style rifle into a target at a state police shooting range in Simsbury.
"It gives you shivers to think that we allow for that kind of weapon to be in the hands of madmen who are out to do the kind of destruction that we saw in Sandy Hook," Murphy said after the demonstration. "So I do think it's important to take these assault weapons off the street."
But despite the aggressive appearance of military-style semi-automatics, the same semi-automatic action is now found on most new rifles, whether they are designed to look like a SWAT Team weapon or grandpa's wooden-stock hunting rifle.
"Semi-automatic firearm technology is simply the sort of modern basic technology," said Paul Barrett, an editor at Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine and an expert on guns. "It is simply the way a gun works."
Bartocci said gun enthusiasts have always been drawn to civilian versions of military firearms, and guns like the one used by Lanza have been a popular choice for nearly 40 years.
"This is as American as baseball, apple pie, hot dogs. It's part of our history," he said. "Mechanically, it's no different than weapons that have been around since World War II."
That leaves lawmakers in a dilemma. Critics say restricting access to guns that merely look like military weaponry amounts to outlawing cosmetics while permitting the sale of other, equally lethal semi-automatic weapons.
But Murphy said cosmetics might matter in the hands of a disturbed shooter.
"I don't know why Adam Lanza walked into that school," he said. "But I do think that his access to a military-style assault weapon, that he may have used in video games, gave him a sense of confidence that he might not have otherwise had."
While lawmakers wrestle with definitions, the firearms business is booming. Gun sales are up five-fold at The Gun Store in Las Vegas. Across town, at Bargain Pawn, the last pawn shop the city specializing in guns, prices for military-style rifles have tripled.
"When people who are skeptical of gun ownership and of guns identify a particular gun as evil or dangerous, that makes people who like guns in this country run out and by two of them," Barrett said.
And with proposals to tax bullets and restrict the shooting capacity of rifles, even ammunition and magazines are tough to get. Brownells.com, a major online firearms retailer, sells 27 varieties of 30-round magazines for military-style semi-automatic weapons. All 27 are out of stock, and on every page of the store's website, a banner pleads with customers to be patient with delays caused by "extreme order volumes."
Richard Feldman, a former political director for the NRA, thinks the legislative debate should focus more on keeping guns out of the wrong hands and less on trying to identify what is and isn't an assault weapon.
"Let me give you a definition for an assault weapon that works every single time," he said. "Any loaded firearm pointed at me is an assault weapon. And any loaded firearm I have in my hands is a defensive device that I can use to protect myself, my family, my community, and you."
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant