Anderson: Gun debate not definitive

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2013 - 6:52 AM

The semiautomatic gun, when it hasn't been dogged by negative press, evolved for use by soldiers as well as sportsmen. Now it's a political hot potato for extremists.

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John Jackson, co-owner of Capitol City Arms Supply in Springfield, Ill., shows off an AR-15.

Photo: Seth Perlman, Associated Press

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This is not a column about gun control -- everyone seems to have his or her mind made up about that topic. Instead, the subject is guns, specifically the AR-style shown here commonly referred to by the media as an "assault rifle."

Whether this type of "firearm" (the proper term for a gun used to hunt game or critters such as foxes and coyotes) or "weapon" (which more typically refers to guns used for self-defense, war, etc.) is in fact an assault rifle, or an assault-style rifle, depends on who's doing the defining.

New York state, for instance, now classifies the gun shown here as an assault rifle, because it has a number of features (telescoping stock, detachable magazine, pistol grip) that officials there have determined fit the description.

Similarly, this semiautomatic rifle would be an assault rifle under the federal ban that defined certain firearms/weapons as such between 1994-2004.

That said, let's take a look at the rifle, which is somewhat commonly used by hunters nationwide, particularly those seeking varmints and hogs, but also deer, that is the subject of so much attention, including that of President Obama, and perhaps some Minnesota legislators as well.

• • •

Some background:

The first version of the AR-15 was developed in 1956 by Eugene Stoner and other engineers at the Fairchild ArmaLite Corp. (thus the "AR," which does not stand for "assault rifle") of Illinois. Gas-operated and chambered in .223 (5.56 millimeter), the gun had very little recoil.

In 1959, ArmaLite licensed the AR-15 to Colt, which subsequently sold the rifles to the U.S. military (as well as to armed forces of other nations) for use in Vietnam.

Soldiers quickly dubbed the weapon "the little black rifle" while the military named it the M16, replacing the M14.

Importantly -- to draw distinctions with current civilian AR-style rifles, which are semiautomatics -- the M16 could be fired either fully automatically or semiautomatically.

Problems followed. The Southeast Asian environment wasn't kind to early versions of the rifle, and cleaning it meticulously was required to keep it operational. Additionally, the 5.56 mm rounds were smaller than the 7.62 mm NATO rounds previously used by the military, and some soldiers complained they lacked stopping power. Accuracy of the rifle beyond 200 meters also was questioned.

Improvements followed, and by 1966 more than 400,000 M16s had been delivered to the military. Updated versions are still used by the military today.

Vietnam was a huge operation for the United States, involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. For many, their familiarity with the M16 followed them home, and they picked up on civilian versions of the firearm/weapon (which appear similar to their military counterparts but are configured differently internally). Some wanted the rifle for hunting, some for home protection, some for target shooting or other purposes.

A watershed moment in the history of this type of rifle occurred in 1989, when Patrick Edward Purdy used a Type 56 assault rifle (a Chinese knock-off of the Russian-made AK-47) in a Stockton, Calif., school shooting.

Five people were killed (six, counting Purdy's suicide) in Stockton and 30 were injured, a tragic toll that helped set the stage in 1994 for the 10-year federal ban on "assault rifles" that -- as with New York's most recent action -- focused largely on the rifle's appearance. Its semiautomatic action is the same one used in many hunting rifles and shotguns.

• • •

At least a couple of occurrences led to the popularity today of what are referred to by many as "ARs."

One is that the federal ban was lifted in 2004, in part because of politics and in part because data were lacking that showed the ban had any effect on crime. Also, the ban was circumvented in some cases when manufacturers altered the rifle's appearance.

Secondly, some patents attending design and manufacture of the AR-15 expired, making room for new versions of the rifle, along with new accessories.

Concurrently, generally, America (in my view) and some of its gun owners have become evermore fascinated with things military, or military-like. The Hummer, a Jeep-like vehicle first produced by General Motors, is an example of the phenomenon, as are civilian versions of the AR-15.

So while sales of many types of traditional hunting rifles (bolt action as well as semiautomatic) have stalled in recent years, sales of ARs have been strong. Many hunters, plinkers, target shooters and other gun enthusiasts consider ARs neat and fun guns to own and shoot, whether outfitted with 10-round magazines or 30-round magazines.

But that's not why more recent AR sales are through the roof. Instead, the reelection of President Obama, who is feared by many gun owners, together with the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, have prompted many gun owners -- even some who previously didn't want an AR -- to fear their ability ("right") to own such a rifle might be legislated away by the state or federal government.

So strong are AR sales now that they can barely be found. When ARs do arrive at retailers, they sell out virtually in minutes (a shipment of 30 ARs arrived in one Minnesota Cabela's store Thursday and was gone in less than an hour).

Ammunition for the rifles is equally difficult to find -- at any price.

Which leaves us where?

Certainly many state and federal officeholders want to restrict, if not outright ban, ARs, or at least some of their accessories, including high-capacity magazines.

Maybe they'll succeed, maybe not.

But if you're a betting person, bet that the nation that gave the world its best gun designers, builders and marketers -- among them Oliver Winchester, Benjamin Tyler Henry, John Moses Browning and, yes, Eugene Stoner and his ArmaLite team -- will produce still more of the world's best gun designers, builders and marketers.

Ours is a market economy, after all, and demand for these products is strong.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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