This column by Jeff Gerritt, The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor, is one in a series of occasional editorials and columns on violence in the Toledo area, and possible solutions, that will appear in The Blade in 2013.
Three months ago, politicians hotly debated new calls for gun control, including an assault weapons ban, after Adam Lanza used an AR-15 assault weapon to massacre 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn. But memories fade fast, and politicians are punking out again. Bowing to the gun lobby, Senate Democratic leaders are dropping a plan to ban assault-style weapons from gun-safety legislation they plan to introduce this month.
Though public support for such a ban has softened in the last two weeks, most Americans still back it. But the National Rifle Association, spending nearly $3 million a year on federal lobbying, wants to make sure we continue to live in a country where buying assault-style rifles is almost as easy as buying a carton of eggs.
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Recently, at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Mount Clemens, Mich., I handed my driver’s license and a credit card to a gun dealer; less than 10 minutes later, I walked out with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, two 30-round magazines, and a box of .223 Remington cartridges. The price: $1,200.
Because I bought the gun from a licensed dealer, I had to undergo a background check that took roughly four minutes. There was no waiting period after the purchase. I just filled out a one-page form that included my name, address, and birth date.
With that much information, I could have bought an even bigger gat. One salesman showed me a 50-caliber Beowulf for $3,200, which she said the U.S. Coast Guard used to sink ships. The recoil on this “bad mamma jamma,” she said, would bust up my shoulder. What’s more, federal law imposes no limit on how many assault weapons are bought. Many guns are bought at shows like this by straw purchasers, who illegally transfer them to a buyer with a criminal record.
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“They have become the weapons of choice for many gangs and drug organizations that operate in our cities,” said David Coulson, an ATF spokesman for Indiana and Ohio who worked as a street agent for more than 20 years.
Crazy as it sounds, buying an assault weapon is easier than getting a .22 pistol. In Ohio, buyers must be 21 to get a handgun but only 18 to purchase an assault-style rifle. Cops point out that 18 to 21 is an active age for gang members and violent criminal activity. Some states, such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Jersey, require waiting periods of up to seven days for handgun purchases, but none for assault weapons.
A run on guns, ammo
Since the Newtown massacre, gun shows have become more popular, as the industry feeds the paranoia of gun owners who fear government agents are preparing to kick down their doors and grab their guns. Even ammunition has become scarce. Because of depleted supplies, the Toledo Police Department, for example, can’t qualify all officers for shotguns because the department can’t buy enough ammunition, Sgt. Joe Heffernan told me.
A renewed debate on banning assault weapons also inflated the prices of some rifles by $500, as dealers exhort buyers to get them while they can. At Gibraltar, I couldn’t find an assault rifle for under $1,000.
Dozens of similar gun shows operate each year in Michigan and Ohio, including shows by private dealers who don’t require background checks. They sell assault weapons, hunting rifles, handguns of every caliber, stacks of ammunition, targets that “bleed,” laser sights, shoulder and ankle holsters, collapsible stocks, 30-round magazines, shoulder straps, bipods, grips, cases, and gun-glorifying T-shirts.
Depending on how they’re used or modified, some legally bought accessories can make a gun illegal, such as a drop-in sear device or Hellfire trigger attachment that purports to turn a semiautomatic rifle into a machine-gun.
One dealer showed me a lightweight .22 Mossberg rifle with a collapsible stock and AR platform, or design. “They’re really good for starting out your younger children because there’s no recoil,” she said.
I had to shake my head.
I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment. I own two handguns and even carried one for a while, until I figured out carrying a weapon can cause more problems than it solves. Even so, I understand why some people pack for protection. No one is trying to take that right away from them.
But an estimated 4 million assault weapons are in circulation; a ban would let owners keep the guns they have. We don’t need more assault weapons for self-defense when Americans own nearly 300 million handguns, shotguns, rifles, and other guns.
I know plenty of cases in which assault weapons were used to kill indiscriminately, but I’ve never heard of an instance in which they saved the life of an innocent civilian. Virtually every police chief in the nation, including Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs, favors an assault weapons ban. Among their concerns: Bullets that can penetrate body armor.
“When officers on the street confront criminals possessing military-type weapons, they’re essentially outgunned,” Sergeant Heffernan said. “It’s a safety issue for the officer and the community.”
Gun-rights advocates say it’s people, not guns, who kill — as though a lead pipe, knife, or even an ordinary handgun has the same juice as a military-style rifle with a 30-round magazine.
The human toll
Eight years ago in Detroit, I interviewed Pamela Martin, whose daughter, Brianna, 8, was killed with an AK-47 while she slept in her bed. A drug dealer beefing with another dealer fired on the wrong house, spraying the Martin home with two dozen rounds. One bullet ripped through the front porch into Brianna’s first-floor bedroom. It went through her arm, then through another wall. Another bullet hit her in the chest. Pamela told me she had wanted to donate Brianna’s organs, but only her daughter’s eyes were intact. So she donated those.
Brianna was killed because of the gun’s power and capacity to quickly fire two dozen rounds during a drive-by shooting.
And if Adam Lanza had not had high-capacity magazines, at least some of the 20 children he massacred at Newtown probably would be alive.
No doubt, an assault weapons ban would mark only a small step. Handguns, including .38 revolvers, 9mms, Glocks, and .44 Magnums, are used in the vast majority of gun homicides. In Toledo, assault weapons were used in probably only two homicides since 2004. And even if an assault weapons ban took effect today, millions of the guns would stay in circulation — enough to supply the legal, and illegal, markets for years.
That said, a ban is worth fighting for. These weapons are used in many of the high-profile mass shootings Americans seem most worried about. In Australia, after a gunman killed 35 people in 1996, an assault weapons ban has reduced gun-related murders and eliminated mass shootings.
Ask the parents of the 20 children killed in Newtown what they think. Or the relatives of Misada Shalan, who was shot to death with an AK-47 in 2004 while working at Tamara’s Carry Out in Toledo.
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Last week, I talked to her daughter, Anan Hamad, 31; her sister, Sadiya Adya, 53, and her nephew, Mohammad Adya, 18, who all live in Toledo.
For years after the murder, Ms. Hamad said, she felt far safer on the West Bank, where she grew up, than in the United States or Toledo. “We don’t have these things back home,’’ she said. “My mother was such a sweetheart. She never hurt anyone.”
Said Ms. Adya: “It’s crazy that you can get a gun like that so easily.”
Crazy, yeah, but prospects are dimming to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. Other sensible measures, such as mandating comprehensive background checks, stand a better chance.
Still, advocates for a ban, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D., Calif.), shouldn’t give up. Offered as an amendment, her proposal could stop the sale and manufacture of more than 150 kinds of semiautomatic weapons, as well as ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Assault-style rifles aren’t needed for hunting, recreational shooting, or self-defense. As weapons of war designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible, they have no place on our streets or in our homes. We shouldn’t need another mass murder like the one at Newtown to recognize that.
Contact Jeff Gerritt at: 419-724-6467, or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @jeffgerritt.