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Assault weapons debate shifts from complete ban to who can have access

WASHINGTON – With its short barrel, pistol grip and perforated handguard, the weapon that Omar Mateen used to slaughter 49 people looks for all the world like the sort of gun a soldier would use. And it is.

Yet it’s also the sort of weapon that folks in the countryside now use to kill coyotes.

And that latter fact says a lot about why the idea of renewing a nationwide assault weapons ban remains a nonstarter 12 years after it expired.

Instead, the fight in Congress is shaping up not over whether to outlaw assault rifles – a losing proposition since there are more than 3 million AR-15 rifles alone in American homes – but over who should have access to them, what gun control advocates call the “terror gap.”

“If we had closed it already, we might have prevented the Orlando shooter from getting guns,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Most of the political dialogue since the Orlando shooting has revolved around improving background checks and barring people who are on the terror watch list from purchasing such weapons.

In large part that is because in those 12 years since the expiration of the federal ban, assault weapons – semiautomatic guns that can fire dozens of rounds a minute – have become a deeply ingrained part of America’s gun culture.

People in the countryside call them varmint guns. Some use them as hunting rifles. And gun enthusiasts love them.

“It’s kind of cool-looking to a lot of people,” said Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.

Of course, gun-control advocates don’t think that’s a good reason to make such weapons easily available. “These weapons have been used to commit horrific acts,” Vice President Joe Biden said on the White House website last week. “They’ve been called ‘the perfect killing machines.’ They fire bullets at incredible speed that rip through bodies and cause devastating carnage, and can accommodate high-capacity magazines that allow them to effectively shoot up to 45 rounds per minute.”

For all their power, assault weapons are not machine guns. Civilian ownership of those weapons, which can spray multiple bullets with one pull of the trigger, have been banned since the 1930s. In contrast, assault weapons are semiautomatic, meaning that kind of gun automatically reloads so the shooter can launch multiple shots much more quickly. In New York State, the sale of such assault weapons is banned under the SAFE Act.

Varmint or assault gun?

Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX as his main weapon in Orlando a week ago.

It’s a high-end assault rifle, retailing for between $1,500 and $2,000, and one that, like the older, cheaper and very popular AR-15, was built first for military use.

“Sig Sauer developed the MCX rifle for America’s special forces,” Nick Leghorn wrote in reviewing the weapon for “The Truth About Guns” blog last year. “Their goal: a firearm that’s as quiet as an MP5, as deadly as an AK-47, and more modular than anything ever designed.”

Even so, the firearms industry prefers to call such guns “modern sporting rifles.” And while they don’t look anything like the kind of weapon Americans used for generations to shoot game, that’s increasingly what they’re used for.

The ammunition typically used in the AR-15 isn’t powerful enough to quickly fell a deer, King said, but the weapon can be easily modified to accommodate higher-caliber ammunition.

That makes it “an ideal hunting rifle,” King said.

More commonly, people use assault rifles to hunt varmints.

“A lot of people use this for coyotes, woodchucks, prairie dogs,” said Harold “Budd” Schroeder, chairman of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, a Buffalo-area gun rights group.

Of course, gun enthusiasts also use weapons like the Sig Sauer MCX and the AR-15 at shooting ranges. Gun-rights advocates say many shooters have come to favor assault weapons because they’re light and easy to maintain and reload, as well as for cosmetic reasons.

“Ever since I can remember, there has been a love affair between the shooter and firearms that look like military firearms,” King said.

But does a farmer with too many woodchucks out back really need a weapon based on one that U.S. soldiers use on the battlefield?

Safe act restrictions

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo doesn’t think so, which is why he pushed the SAFE Act into law in 2013.

That controversial law requires owners of assault weapons to register them with the state. In addition, it bans the sale of such weapons, as well as magazine cartridges of more than 10 rounds.

That means Mateen could not have purchased his Sig Sauer MCX, with its 30-round cartridge, in New York State, which now has the toughest gun laws in the nation, said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo.

“Orlando is the latest sad reminder that Washington must act to keep these dangerous weapons out of the hands of madmen once and for all,” Azzopardi added.

Denying access, not weapon

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, didn’t even mention an assault weapons ban in its statement on the Orlando shooting.

“We should all be working together to close the ‘Terror Gap’ – the loophole that has allowed terror suspects to buy guns more than 2,000 times since 2004,” said Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

While assault weapons have been used in shootings from Orlando to Newtown, Conn., Everytown’s own research shows that they are not used in most mass shootings. In an analysis of the 133 mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2015, Everytown found that the high-capacity magazines associated with assault weapons were used in only 11 percent of those shootings.

But that’s not the reason why lawmakers are focusing on closing the Terror Gap rather than banning assault weapons. There’s simply no political will to ban a weapon that so many people now own nationwide.

In numbers that are surely now out of date, an analysis by Slate found that there were 3.3 million AR-15s in the U.S. in 2012 – and, of course, many of them are owned by people who vote.

Not surprisingly, then, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had a ready explanation for why House Democrats are focusing on closing the Terror Gap rather than on banning assault weapons.

“It’s not that we’re not strong enough to make the fight,” she told her colleagues last week, according to Politico. “It’s just that we want to win the fight.”