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States Move To Tighten Controversial 'Assault Weapons' Ban


Assault-style rifles including the AR-15 are under scrutiny again after recent mass shootings. They were used by the gunman in Newtown, Conn., and more recently Roseburg, Ore., and San Bernardino. AR-15s, in particular, are often called America's gun. They're some of the most popular rifles in the country, especially when it comes to sports shooting. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been talking with AR-15 enthusiasts and filed this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The A-R in the AR-15 actually stands for Armalite, not assault rifle, as it's sometimes mistaken for. Armalite was one of the first companies to develop AR-15s in the late 1950s. And pretty much ever since, sales have been robust, especially in states like Florida that place few restrictions on them.

AARON GANN: Very common, very easy to use, you know. It's good for new shooters. It's very safe. It's easy to make safe for storage.

SIEGLER: Aaron Gann (ph) lives near Tampa, where he's a nursing student. He's been shooting for sport and hunting since he was a kid growing up in Texas.

GANN: I shoot this weapon a lot just for target. I enjoy shooting for target, then also nostalgia from being in the military.

SIEGLER: Gann was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq in the Army. He is a gun enthusiast, make no mistake. And like a lot of self-described Second Amendment advocates, he thinks there's a lot of misperception around rifles such as the AR-15.

GANN: Unfortunately, the media likes to try to make it as some kind of high-power assault rifle. But actually the bullet that it uses is mainly used for what they call varmint hunting, like groundhog and coyote. It's not super powerful. You can go to any range, and it's safe to use.

SIEGLER: And Gann bristles when right after mass shootings like Newtown or San Bernardino, there's this rush of criticism around AR-15s. In San Bernardino, he says, no one was there to stop the shooters, so it wouldn't have mattered even if they had just had handguns.

Now, California is one of six states that, for the most part, bans all assault-style weapons including AR-15s. So how was it that the guns used in San Bernardino were purchased legally at a gun store nearby?

ARI FREILICH: Unfortunately, gun manufacturers have attempted to infiltrate California's market, despite the clear spirit and intent of California's voters, by introducing California-compliant assault weapons is what they're called.

SIEGLER: Ari Freilich is a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He says some gun manufacturers have gotten around California's 1989 assault weapons ban with what he calls the bullet button loophole.

Basically, California compliant means you can't just use your finger to detach and reload a magazine. You need a separate tool to push a separate button. This creates a lag time to reload. But Freilich and other gun control advocates want California lawmakers to close this loophole when they reconvene next year.

FREILICH: They are military-style weapons for a reason. They are designed for and intended to allow the shooter to kill as many human beings as possible in as short as time as possible.

SIEGLER: Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar effort two years ago, even as other so-called blue states like Connecticut and Maryland had moved to ban the AR-15s after the Newtown massacre. The gun debate is so complex and cuts across party lines in red or blue states. Just take Mike Freeland (ph). He lives in Tulsa. He owns several AR-15 and loves building them.

MIKE FREELAND: For a good part of the country, it's - shooting is just part of the culture.

SIEGLER: Freeland says he doesn't identify politically with what he calls the stereotypical gun owner. He leans left, but he also doesn't think banning AR-15s or other guns is the way to go.

FREELAND: Yeah, I think the AR-15, for incidents like we hear way too often - I think it's just the availability of it.

SIEGLER: He wants to see tighter restrictions on buying guns in first place. He talked to people on both sides of this debate, and if nothing else, it seems like there's this general agreement on one thing. There's a huge appetite for a broader conversation on gun violence that cuts past the rhetoric. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.