Selling assault rifles

If you don't like the idea of AK-47 rifles with large-capacity ammunition magazines being sold in local gun stores and pawn shops, blame Congress for allowing the assault weapons ban to expire. In truth, though, most so-called assault weapons aren't much different from many conventional weapons.

AK-47 assault rifles are sold at a number of stores in York County, and owners say they often are hot sellers, especially with gun collectors. But some law enforcement officials say they have found shell casings from assault weapons at crime scenes recently, and gun-control advocates claim the guns aren't designed for retail sale.

An assault weapons ban was approved in 1994. But the bill was scheduled to "sunset" in 2004 if Congress did not vote to extend it. President Bush had pledged to sign a bill renewing the ban if Congress passed it, but opponents of the ban prevailed, and it was allowed to expire.

This was viewed at the time as a victory for gun enthusiasts and a defeat for gun-control supporters. But the ban actually had done little to affect the sale of semi-automatic weapons that resembled those used in the military, the purpose for which most assault-type weapons originally were designed.

In some cases, weapons used in the military can be fully automatic, often referred to as machine guns. These weapons fire more than one round with a single trigger pull. A fully automatic rifle or pistol cannot be legally sold to anyone without a special license to own one.

AK-47s are semi-automatic, as are many conventional hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols. The shooter must pull the trigger each time to fire. What makes it semi-automatic is that the gun automatically ejects the spent casing and loads the next round into the chamber, making it ready to fire again.

The assault weapons ban focused primarily on a few features of these military-style guns. For example, it outlawed large-capacity ammunition magazines such as the so-called "banana clips"; folding or telescoping stocks; flash suppressors or threaded barrels capable of receiving one; bayonet mounts; and, in the case of rifles and shotguns, pistol grips.

But gun sellers continued to sell similar weapons without those features. For example, a civilian version of the U.S. military's standard issue M-16 that used the same ammunition and fired at the same rate could be sold legally even under the ban. But it didn't come with a large ammo clip, bayonet mounts, flash suppressors or a folding stock.

Advocates of the ban, including most of the nation's law enforcement organizations, believed that it helped dry up the supply of weapons designed primarily to shoot people. But gun enthusiasts asserted that the ban was too superficial to have a real effect on crime.

The gun enthusiasts are largely correct. Nonetheless, we think a good case could be made for restoring the ban on large ammo magazines. A few studies suggest that shootings involving semiautomatic weapons with large capacity magazines result in more shots fired and more people hit.

One of the guns used by the shooter in April's Virginia Tech massacre was a semi-automatic 9mm Glock pistol with a 15-round magazine. When the assault weapons ban was in place, the same gun was legal -- but only with a smaller 10-round magazine.

Would a smaller magazine have saved lives? That's hard to say.

Perhaps a more important question is why any civilian would need a gun that holds more than 10 rounds. We wish more gun enthusiasts would concede that some sensible restrictions on firearms pose no real threat to the Second Amendment.

An AK-47 is not much different from other semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.