Merchants: AK-47s good for business

David Dresner, owner of David's Pawn Shop, holds an AK-47 last week in front of a display case for the guns. Area gun and pawn shop owners say the assault weapon is a popular item among collectors.
David Dresner, owner of David's Pawn Shop, holds an AK-47 last week in front of a display case for the guns. Area gun and pawn shop owners say the assault weapon is a popular item among collectors.

The same type of gun commonly used by Iraqi security forces is legally being sold to civilians in Rock Hill.

Surprised? Don't be. It's been happening for years in York County, and more stores are offering AK-47 assault rifles as their popularity grows among collectors since federal restrictions on their sales were lifted in 2004.

But law enforcement officials say they've found shell casings at crime scenes recently, and gun-control advocates claim the guns weren't designed for retail sale.

Take a drive along Cherry Road, and you'll see David's Pawn Shop advertising the weapons on its marquee, "AK-47s Now In Stock." Owner David Dresner said he started selling the Romanian-made weapon recently, and it's been a big hit with collectors and for those taking target practice. Some individuals also use the guns for hunting, he said.

David's is one of the first pawn shops in the area to start selling the guns, he said. Larger gun dealers including Nichols Store southeast of Rock Hill and the Sportsman in Newport have been selling the weapons for years, clerks at both stores said.

"We've sold a bunch of them," Dresner said, estimating he sells four or five AK-47s each week. "I've been surprised at how well they've sold."

Dresner said the AK-47 he sells is a semi-automatic rifle just like the ones used by Iraqi police allied with U.S. troops in the Middle East. It looks similar to the famed Russian AK-47, a fully automatic machine gun made popular during the Cold War. Those guns, however, are only sold to individuals specially licensed by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he said. And they carry a $25,000 price tag.

Priced from $550 to $800

The assault rifles Dresner and other local dealers offer are priced between $550 and $800. State law also requires a mandatory background check before the gun can be sold -- just like any other gun sale -- that takes between 20 minutes and three days.

From 1994 to 2004, a federal ban on assault weapons, including AK-47s, limited the kinds of guns dealers could sell. Dresner said the AK-47 was still sold, but only with magazines that held three rounds or less. The ban expired in 2004 and the guns can now be purchased with up to 100 round drums, Dresner said.

And they can be fired "as fast as you can pull the trigger," he said.

That's the main reason gun-control advocates are concerned about the sale of assault weapons. They claim the guns were manufactured for killing people, not any other reason.

"AK-47s should not be available for sale. There's really no argument," said Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign, the nation's leading gun-control lobby. "They're designed to attack people, period. They're not for hunting or a fun collector's item."

Ragbourn said the term "assault weapon" was coined by the gun industry years ago as a marketing tool. He said any weapon capable of firing multiple rounds in a split second shouldn't be offered on store shelves.

"A 100-round magazine is not a cosmetic feature," he said. "It's nothing but a bunch of lead in the air in a short amount of time."

Ragbourn said lobbyists are pushing lawmakers to reinstate the assault weapon ban.

Locally, Lt. Les Herring of the Rock Hill Police Department said several shell casings from the high-powered rifles have turned up at crime scenes recently. He said there are two or three unsolved shootings, none fatal, where investigators found the bullet shells.

"We know people are shooting them, but that's about all we know," he said.

Herring said there isn't any data that suggests more assault weapons are used for violent crimes now than before the weapons ban expired. However, any time a weapon capable of firing rounds quickly is in the hands of a criminal, it's a concern, he said.

"People who want one will go wherever they have to in order to get one," Herring said, adding that before the guns were sold locally, people would travel to other places to make purchases. "The threat's always been out there. We've always had that concern."

Dresner doesn't believe the guns he sells are going directly into the hands of criminals. He said the background checks and clientele he sees on a regular basis suggest otherwise.

"It's just a souvenir, to be able to say, 'I've got an AK-47,'" Dresner said. "I bet 90 percent of the people who buy it won't even shoot the first bullet."

When he thinks a gun may end up in the wrong hands, Dresner refuses the sale, he said. Recently, a man passed a background check to purchase a handgun, but Dresner overheard him joking with a friend that he was going to use the gun for violence.

"I said, 'Sorry buddy. You just talked your way out of this gun,'" Dresner said. "It's not worth it to have that on your conscious."

Dresner said most guns used in violent crimes are bought illegally or stolen from a responsible owner.

"Could it get into the wrong hands? I guess," he said about the AK-47s. "But the average person who buys it is legit."