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Assault weapon debate sends gun owners into buying frenzy

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com is partnering with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s School of Mass Communications. Students from the project reported the following story.

By Shelby Mertens and Sam Isaacs (Special to WTVR.com)

RICHMOND, Va. – While the battle over the proposed assault weapons ban goes into its final stretch in the U.S. Senate right now, local gun sellers have already seen one consequence of the nationwide gun debate. Their customers have run to buy guns during the last couple of weeks.

Adam Harrison, senior operations manager at Dominion Shooting Range in Chesterfield, said all the talk about banning assault weapons has led customers into a frenzy, buying all they can before a ban can be passed.

“Right now any AR-15 is going to be popular no matter what it looks like, because people are trying to get what they believe is going to be banned,” Harrison said. As a result, the prices of guns are also inflated, he added.

A basic rifle would normally start around $700 to $900, according to Harrison. The rifles with all of the added features would cost around $1100, but now those same rifles are going anywhere from $1500 to $4000, Harrison said. The uncertain future has put manufacturing to a halt.

“It’s making all of it very difficult to get right now,” Harrison said. “A lot of the companies that manufacture rifles are already a year to a year-and-a-half behind on production. They’re not taking any new orders right now, because they’re just trying to fill what has already been purchased.”

James Reynolds, president of Proactive Shooters, a company that offers firearm training, said a cosmetic ban is not the problem. Under such a ban, certain guns would be prohibited based on their additive features.

“The cosmetics do not affect how the gun fires. It would be the same as looking at a Toyota with spinning rims and a spoiler, deciding to put a ban on Toyotas and calling every vehicle with spoilers and rims a Toyota,” he said.

Reynolds also said the average person may not have the full knowledge of what makes an assault weapon.

According to Harrison, there are five components to classifying an assault rifle: a collapsible and/or folding stock, a pistol grip, an attachable magazine, an attachable muzzle device and a bayonet lug. In Virginia, the gun must have at least three of these features in order to be considered an assault weapon, he said.

A stock is used to adjust to the shoulder for comfort and the attachable muzzle device helps with the recoil. A pistol grip is the handle of a gun. An attachable magazine stores and feeds the ammunition, and the bayonet lug attaches a bayonet to the firearm.

The proposed assault weapons legislation would have classified a firearm  as an assault weapon even when it only has one of these components.

“They’re really pushing on the magazines, there were some proposals that having just a detachable magazine would be considered an assault weapon,” Harrison said. “Whether it held seven rounds, 10 rounds, 20 rounds or 30 rounds, if it had a detachable magazine, they were going to try to put it in the assault weapon category.”

Harrison said the assault weapons features make the rifle more eye-catching to customers, but he admits, “a rifle is going to be a rifle, whether it’s considered an assault weapon or not.”

Andrew Goddard, president of The Virginia Center for Public Safety, an organization with the goal of reducing gun violence, is in favor of strict assault weapon regulations, but said he is unsure that a ban based on cosmetics would be effective.

“Manufactures could change a few screws around on a model and make a new gun that does the exactly the same thing,” he said. “We need to have strong control on these weapons to make sure the only people that have them are ones that have proven they are serious.”

A consumer is subjected to stricter background checks when purchasing an assault weapon. Some fear that an unknowing buyer could get confused by the cosmetics and unknowingly buy an assault weapon.

“Yes, I think that could happen,” said Philip VanCleave, president of The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun organization. Both Harrison and Reynolds also agreed that the cosmetics can be confusing, but doubted a person could go through with purchasing an assault weapon without knowing it.

President Obama made new gun regulations a priority of his second term agenda after the Newtown shooting in December, but no legislation has been passed so far. Vice President Joe Biden and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are still pushing for the assault weapons ban, even after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dropped it from the gun control bill on Thursday due to a lack of votes.

On the other hand, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a number of landmark gun control bills on Wednesday that expand background checks to private and online gun sales and bans ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.

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