by Chris Rogers
Sales of so-called "assault weapons"—certain high-powered semi-automatic weapons (see definition below)—have soared nationwide in anticipation of a renewed ban on those firearms, according to news reports from across the country.
Mainstream Firearms & Marine in downtown Winona is no exception. The store has sold out most of its stock of the guns, with just a handful remaining on the rack as of Thursday. "Everything we had is almost gone," owner Jeff Stingl said. Immediately after the shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, on December 14, people started coming in to buy the guns while they still could.
Mainstream Firearms and Marine has sold 25 to 30 of the weapons in the last week. Stingl expects that a federal ban, similar to the one signed by President Clinton in 1994, will be enacted soon.
However, defining what makes a gun an "assault weapon" is convoluted (see sidebar). The 1994 law needed a page and a half to describe what sorts of guns fall under that label.
Stingl doesn't believe that banning these weapons will solve anything. "Cocaine and marijuana are illegal but that doesn't stop the sale of them," Stingl said. "The only problem we have is we have a bunch of mental health issues in this country."
If a ban on these weapons were enacted, "everyday freedom" would be lost, Stingl said. Such a ban, he adds, would "infringe on average persons' rights."
According to Stingl, even if a ban is enacted, a ban isn't likely to have a large effect on the gun business in Winona, where guns are purchased primarily for hunting.
The term “assault rifle” or “assault weapon” is often used by politicians and the media as a name for certain kinds of semi-automatic weapons, but the term itself does not have a concise meaning.
“Fully automatic” weapons are those which fire multiple bullets when the trigger is held down. Civil ownership of these kinds of guns has been strictly regulated since 1934. “Semiautomatic” weapons are those which fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, but which automatically reload the chamber each time a bullet is fired. These kinds of guns are extremely common in the United States and the “semiautomatic” feature can be found with guns of all shapes and sizes.
The 1994 ban on certain kinds of “assault weapons” did not make it illegal to own or sell a semiautomatic weapon, since it would have essentially made many guns illegal. The 1994 ban was complex. Eighteen specific firearms were listed in the legislation, and complicated flow charts described the features that would trigger the ban for other kinds of guns. For instance, a semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount was considered an “assault weapon” under the ban, but those with just a pistol grip were not. The law also set a limit of 10 bullets for high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The law allowed any banned gun or magazine manufactured before it went into effect in 1994 to be owned or sold, and the legislation expired in 2004.