WINCHESTER — Semi-automatic rifles like the one used by the man who targeted congressional Republicans in a mass shooting Wednesday can kill a person hundreds of yards away or mow down dozens at close range. The shooting renewed the debate about why civilians need weapons designed for combat and how to keep them out of the hands of criminals and those with mental illness.
But for some local gun store owners and their customers, there is no debate. While they concede renewing the assault weapons ban — which restricted sales of semi-automatic rifles between 1993 and 2004 — would reduce the supply, they believe criminals and unstable people would still get their hands on them.
They said a ban would leave law-abiding citizens vulnerable.
“The bad people are still going to do what they’re going to do, no matter what,” said Travis Dodson, owner of Middletown Firearms in Frederick County.
Dodson stressed all of his buyers undergo legally required criminal background checks. He said even if they passed a background check, he wouldn’t sell semi-automatic rifles, or any guns, to someone he suspected might be making a straw purchase. Straw purchases involve people without a criminal record buying guns for criminals.
Dodson said sales of semi-automatic weapons, often referred to as assault rifles, frequently spike after high-profile mass shootings, but didn’t increase at his store after Wednesday’s shooting. In that incident, James Hodgkinson, armed with an SKS 7.62 millimeter assault rifle, shot four people, including Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., before being shot by Scalise’s security detail. Hodgkinson later died.
Dodson, who opened his store in 2014, said 35 to 40 percent of his annual sales are semi-automatic rifles, with the AR-15, the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle, the most popular. He said customers buy them for personal protection, target shooting and hunting.
Customer Robert Anderson said he owns about six assault rifles, “because I can’t afford any more right now.” Anderson, a 67-year-old Lebanon Church resident, said he has been shooting for about 60 years.
Most of the approximately 33,000 annual U.S. gun deaths involve pistols, but Anderson acknowledged assault rifles have massive firepower, particularly when equipped with high-capacity magazines. Semi-automatic rifles have killed dozens in high-profile mass shootings in recent years. They include last year’s Orlando, Fla., nightclub massacre that killed 49; the 2014 San Bernardino, Calif. terrorist attack that killed 14; the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter in Connecticut that killed 27 — including 20 children; and the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting that killed 12.
Nonetheless, Anderson said nearly all assault rifle owners are law-abiding, and restricting their sales would infringe on his Second Amendment right to bear arms. Anderson, who said he supports national background checks for gun sales, said civilian ownership of assault rifles is also necessary in the event of a second American revolution.
“We are supposed to overthrow a tyrannical government if it comes to that. That is what we have them for,” said Anderson, a former Marine and certified firearms instructor for the National Rifle Association. “It doesn’t really matter. It’s what I want. It’s not what I need.”
Anderson’s views were similar to those of Kevin Bayliss, a salesman at Stonewall Arms in Winchester. A former Marine and Iraq War veteran, he said citizens should have the option of owning assault rifles in the event of a worst-case scenario.
“If the United States is ever invaded by Russia, China, whoever, we the citizens can defend ourselves, or the country,” he said. “The military can’t be everywhere. It’s impossible.”
After the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama and fellow Democrats called for a renewal of the ban as well as national background checks. Republicans defeated a 2013 bill sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., that would have banned about 150 types of assault rifles and many types of high-capacity magazines.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — named after James Brady, the press secretary severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan — supported the 1994 ban. But Brady spokesman Brendan Kelly said his group is now focused on improving national background checks. Because individual sales of guns don’t require licensed dealers in most states and because of unregulated internet and gun show sales, as well as swaps of guns between friends and family inheritances, as many as 40 percent of annual gun transfers occur without background checks, according to a 2015 preliminary study by Harvard University’s Injury Control Research Center.
Kelly said everyone should agree that guns be kept from criminals and the mentally ill, which is the goal of enhancing background checks.
“This is not about keeping certain guns out of all hands, it’s about keeping all guns out of dangerous hands,” Kelly said. “We’re not talking about taking guns away at all. We’re making sure dangerous people can’t buy them in the first place.”
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