PERRY TOWNSHIP — An AR-15 semiautomatic rifle rests on one end of the table.
The black, sleek weapon by DPMS Firearms has a collapsible stock, pistol grip and flash suppressor. When politicians talk about banning weapons, an intimidating firearm like this one often sits nearby as a prop.
On the other end of the table sits a Ruger Mini-14.
It’s a traditional hunting rifle with a deep brown wood stock and dark, steely barrel. It’s the kind of weapon almost no one would dare suggest outlawing.
Aside from the stark contrast in their looks, they’re the same rifle mechanically, Jim Yarger explained Saturday at the Lima Sabres rifle range east of Lima.
“In Diane Feinstein’s latest proposal, which never got out of committee, she was going to ban the AR-15 and allow this weapon, which is the Ruger Mini-14,” said Yarger, the president of the Lima Sabres Shooting Association. “They’re the same exact caliber. They fire the .223 round. They’re both magazine-fed, semi-automatic weapons.”
Why would the federal government consider banning the AR-15 when an American icon has identical firepower and fires just as quickly?
“People think they’re bad, and they’re basing it on the looks of the weapon,” Yarger says, “Nobody needs a military-style weapon to defend themselves or go hunting, right?”
Those additional features are really at the heart of the debate about gun violence in America, says Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.
“They’ll tell you these features are pieces of plastic and are merely scary-looking. They’re just cosmetic,” Everitt said. “That’s just nonsense.”
The AR-15 became the symbol of a dangerous weapon after gunmen used them in the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and more recently in Newtown, Conn. Someone purchased those weapons legally in each case. After the U.S. Senate abandoned proposals this week to expand gun background checks, the focus could move on to ban specific types of weaponry in a war waged in the court of public opinion.
“If you hear the popular press, we’ve already answered all the questions regarding gun control,” said Bruce French, a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada. “There are some measures coming before Congress that are being defeated politically, not constitutionally. It’s pretty clear whatever they work out in Congress will likely be found to be constitutional.”
Defense of the AR-15
Larry James, treasurer of the Lima Sabres, doesn’t understand why some people oppose his AR-15.
“They’re easy to shoot. They’re easy to clean,” he said. “What’s really nice about the caliber is it’s easily available because it’s used by the military and loaded a lot.”
The AR identifies ArmaLite, the original manufacturer, and not assault rifle, Yarger said, a term he described as a media and political device.
“The public’s perception on them right now is bad because of Aurora and Newtown, where the shooters used AR-15s,” Yarger said.
Those additional features on AR-15s concern Everitt, though. His organization supports the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 proposed by Feinstein, a U.S. senator from California. The proposal hasn’t gotten out of committee yet.
That proposal mimics much of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban from 1994, which expired Sept. 13, 2004. In that federal law, semi-automatic rifles could only have two specialty features, such as folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, flash suppressor or grenade launcher.
In Feinstein’s proposal, a rifle could only have one of those features.
“The world’s not affected by scary looks. It’s specific features and what they do,” Everitt said. “Pistol grips, the specific purpose is to keep level and steady during repeated fire. A flash suppressor is to disguise sniper fire at night. A barrel shroud keeps your hand safe while firing round after round so it doesn’t heat up and burn your hand.”
Those features don’t make the gun any more or less dangerous, James said.
“The people who haven’t really fired guns or understand guns are led to believe the way a firearm looks makes it bad or good or whatever,” James said. “Different people have different preferences. Not understanding it is why there’s a lot of discussion on it.”
Arguing over magazine sizes
The speed someone can repeatedly fire a semi-automatic rifle makes it just as dangerous as a fully automatic weapon, Everitt said.
“It’s a nonsense argument that you can’t hold down the trigger so it’s safe,” he said. “You can fire as quickly when you repeatedly press the trigger. It’s highly insulting to those who are victims of gun violence.”
Instead, much of the debate centers on how many rounds should be allowed in a magazine for a semi-automatic weapon. The 1994 law only allowed 10 rounds per magazine. Feinstein’s proposal also used the number 10.
“No one in the world needs more than 10 rounds at a time unless you’re hunting humans,” Everitt said.
Finding the magic number can be full of peril. When New York recently passed a law outlawing large magazine, it settled on seven rounds. Unfortunately for New Yorkers, few manufacturers made clips with a seven-round capacity.
Limiting the number of rounds is impractical, Yarger said. Weaponry mechanics already limits them, he said, as any magazine holding more than 30 rounds is unreliable, he said. Magazines aren’t registered, don’t contain serial numbers and last a long time, meaning the country’s existing magazines could last dozens of years, Yarger said.
On Saturday, he demonstrated how quickly someone could switch from one 10-round magazine to another. It took 2.6 seconds. He noted Eric Harris, one of the Columbine High School shooters, switched between 13 10-round magazines, firing off 96 shots before committing suicide, following the letter of the law on the previous federal ban.
“You can clip two 10-round magazines together and do a reload between them in under three seconds,” Yarger said. “So what effect does outlawing anything bigger really have?”
What’s already illegal
Yarger looked down the range at a brown cardboard target. Pulling his hearing protection over his ears, he lifts the M16 up and aims it through its scope.
The M16 is a fully automatic machine gun. When Yarger presses down on the trigger, bullet after bullet fires out the barrel. Casings fly off to the side; bullets stream toward the target. In seconds, he empties an entire magazine.
It’s illegal to sell and manufacture one now without the government’s permission. Owning one is a four- to six-month process, including the local chief of police or sheriff signing off on it and a thorough FBI background check. An owner of an automatic weapon must accompany it anywhere it goes and request permission to move it across state lines.
They’re such a protected weapon they’re seldom used in crimes, Yarger said. Outlawing them brought the price up to $20,000 for collectors, up nearly 10-fold compared to what the police or military pay.
“When you talk about machine guns, they’ve been licensed and registered since the 1930s, and as far as I can remember there has never been a mass confiscation of those,” Everitt said.
Politicians must be very thorough in drafting any type of gun control legislation, said French, who helped draft the District of Columbia’s gun control statute.
“If you’ve got the votes, you’ll have to put every gun you want to allow into that legislation,” French said. “If not, be ready to fight it in the courts.”