In Newtown, Conn., a troubled young man named Adam Lanza burst into an elementary school on Dec. 14, slaughtering little children and teachers with a military-style semiautomatic rifle capable of blasting 30 bullets in about 15 seconds.
While police have not disclosed how many shots Lanza fired in the school, investigators said he had hundreds of rounds of ammunition with him and that some victims were shot as many as 11 times. Twenty children and six adults were killed at the school.
In Western New York and throughout the nation, guns similar to Lanza’s killer weapon – described by police as an “assault-type” AR-15 Bushmaster rifle – have been selling like hotcakes ever since. Americans already own at least 37.5 million semiautomatic weapons, according to the National Rifle Association.
Semiautomatic weapons, including AR-15 rifles, were flying off the shelves at the City of Tonawanda’s Gander Mountain sports store last week.
Two clerks at a gun counter were working as fast as they could to fill the orders of eight customers who were lined up to buy firearms.
“They told me these were the last two of these guns they had in stock today,” said a man who identified himself only as Phil, who left the store carrying two Smith & Wesson AR-15 semiautomatic rifles that he said cost $730 each. “I came down to buy them because I think the laws are going to change. I went on some gun websites last night, and you couldn’t find a semiautomatic. They are selling out like crazy.”
Gun industry officials said sales of semiautomatic rifles – often called assault weapons by critics of the gun industry – have skyrocketed nationwide since government officeholders began talking about tightening gun control laws in the wake of the school massacre and other recent mass shootings. In interviews with The Buffalo News, Phil, Lancaster gun rights advocate Harold “Budd” Schroeder and Randall Shortridge, another Gander Mountain gun buyer, all said they are heartbroken over the school murders.
‘People control’ needed
But all three also said they would be outraged if the slaughter at Newtown led to restrictions that made it harder for law-abiding citizens to get semiautomatic weapons for fun, hunting or self-defense.
“I’m sick about the deaths of those kids. I have five kids of my own,” said Phil, a retired firefighter who lives in Niagara County. “But I think the liberal politicians have an agenda to take away the rights of legitimate gun owners ... This incident gives them the opportunity to do it.”
Instead of changing gun laws, government officials should look at improvements in mental health treatment and evaluation, and at the widespread use of psychotropic drugs that can make some people violent, said Schroeder, chairman of the board of the New York Shooters Committee on Political Education.
Similar comments came Friday from leaders of the NRA, who blamed the mass shootings on mental illness and violent video games, and called for the establishment of a nationwide mental health database. The powerful gun rights group also called for armed security personnel at all schools.
“We don’t need more gun control. We need better people control,” said Schroeder, a former member of the NRA’s national board. “This incident has touched off the biggest run on guns since just before the assault weapon ban [in the early 1990s].”
The massacre prompted President Obama, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and many other officials to talk about changing gun laws, especially those involving semiautomatic weapons. Many Americans – including Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence – are asking why any law-abiding gun owner needs a gun capable of firing 30 bullets in quick succession.
Such guns were the weapons of choice for Lanza and many of the shooters involved in mass slayings throughout the United States, Hilly said.
“Hopefully, a new law would ban not only sale, but also possession, of these guns, so these people who are rushing out to buy them might be better off holding onto their money,” said Hilly, a former criminal prosecutor from New York City. “These guns are designed for military use, to kill and injure as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. They aren’t designed for any legitimate sporting or hunting use.”
Why would any person – mentally ill or completely normal – need a semiautomatic weapon with a 30-round magazine?
For fun, recreation and self-defense, the gun owners said.
A 30-round firing capacity enables hunters, target shooters and people in self-defense situations to fire dozens of rounds in a short period of time, Schroeder said. Such a weapon can be fired as quickly as a person can pull the trigger, but the trigger has to be pulled for each individual shot.
“I have no problem with law-abiding, qualified people having a semiautomatic gun with a 30-round magazine,” said Schroeder, 77, who is also a firearms safety instructor. “But if a person is a dangerous sociopath, I have a problem with him having a gun that fires even one bullet.”
Many people like to use semiautomatic weapons for target shooting and shooting contests, Schroeder said, and some hunters prefer semiautomatics to weapons that have to be reloaded after every shot. In his view, hunters, target shooters and people who use guns for self-defense should not be punished because a tiny minority of crazed individuals uses guns to kill people.
“I only shoot my guns at paper targets, and I keep them under lock and key,” said Phil, the ex-firefighter.
But even when law-abiding people own semiautomatic weapons and try to keep them from being stolen, there is always a danger of the guns falling into criminal hands, Hilly responded.
She pointed out that Lanza is believed to have taken his weapons from the gun collection of his mother, a law-abiding target shooter. “He used those guns to first kill his mother, and then to kill children,” she said. “There’s always a danger of guns falling into the wrong hands and being used for crimes.”
New York’s regulations
What are the legal requirements in New York for buying a semiautomatic weapon like the one that Lanza used?
Anyone who buys any firearm from a gun store or any other federally licensed gun dealer has to undergo a background check administered by the federal government.
“Under the Brady Law, you have to fill out a Form 4473, which asks if you have any record of criminal convictions, drug use, domestic violence or mental health treatment. Your answers are checked against a nationwide computer database, and if you have a record of problems, you cannot buy the gun,” Schroeder said.
It is difficult to buy 30-round ammunition like Lanza’s in New York. The largest ammunition magazine legal in New York holds 10 bullets. Larger ammunition magazines can be purchased if the magazine was manufactured before 1994, or if the purchaser is a law enforcement official. New York is one of seven states with such restrictions.
Legal ownership of fully automatic weapons, commonly called machine guns, is already subject to sharp restrictions throughout the nation, both Hilly and Schroeder noted. Fully automatic weapons fire continuously after the trigger is pulled and held.
Despite those restrictions, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that almost 457,000 machine guns were registered nationwide as of 2010. Also as of 2010, 118,487 Americans were licensed by the ATF to either sell, make or import firearms. That means there are more than eight federal firearms licensees for every McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in the U.S..
How many people own semiautomatic guns, and what kind of people own them?
There are at least 37.5 million privately owned semiautomatic firearms in America, according to a fact sheet issued by the NRA last year. “They are used for the same purposes that other firearms are, including self-defense, hunting and recreational and competitive target-shooting,” the NRA said.
The number of guns owned by civilians in America rose sharply, from 192 million to 310 million, according to a federal report.
To gun enthusiasts like Schroeder and Shortridge, that means that criminals are committing fewer gun crimes because they know more people own guns and – potentially, at least – will use them to defend themselves.
“The huge majority of people who own guns in this country never use them to commit crimes,” Schroeder said.
Hilly attributes the drop in gun murders to background checks on potential gun buyers that have been conducted under the Brady Law, which took effect in 1994.
Hilly said at least 2 million people who tried to buy guns since 1994 were rejected because of information found during background checks.
“I think the Brady Law makes a big difference,” she said.