October 16, 2021

Bazar Lead

Just Law & Legal

As judge overturns assault weapons ban, the style of rifle remains at heart of gun control battle

John Parkin bought an AR-15-style rifle for his wife in 2016. The couple live on a remote 150-acre ranch in Northern California, and Parkin, who owns gun shops in Burlingame and Lower Lake (Lake County), is often away on business.

“She needs to have something that could equal what a bad guy could have,” he said.

Steve Sposato has spent almost three decades fighting for that type of rifle and similar guns to be banned. In 1993, a man killed his wife, Jody, with a military-style firearm in a San Francisco office building, in one of the nation’s first modern mass shootings.

The Lafayette resident cannot fathom why someone might need such a weapon for hunting, recreation or especially self-defense.

“The design of the gun is to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time,” he said. “Who the hell are you expecting to knock at your front door?”

These opposing views of firearms defined by California as assault weapons — banned for sale in the state for the past three decades with mixed results, and loopholes exploited by gunmakers — show the chasm over gun laws in America at one of its widest points.

Among the most popular of these are AR-15-style rifles, which have gained a loyal following of homeowners, hobbyists and hunters who largely reject the idea that they’re weapons of war. Intended to be the civilian, semiautomatic version of the military’s M-16, the AR-15 and similar models are light, easy to shoot with little recoil, and powerful.

On the other side are many who see AR-15-type rifles and other assault weapons as guns of choice for mass killers, with no legitimate civilian use. The same qualities that make them popular, they say, render them extraordinarily dangerous in the wrong hands.

Many of the nation’s most deadly mass shootings involved such weapons — including the massacres in Las Vegas (61 killed), the Pulse nightclub (49 killed), Newtown (28 killed) and Parkland (17 killed).

Gun advocates counter that most murders involve handguns. Of 822 California killings in 2019 in which the type of gun was determined, 762 involved handguns, 34 were committed with rifles and 26 were committed with shotguns, according to the FBI.

Steve Sposato sits in the backyard of his home in Lafayette, Calif. Monday, June 14, 2021. Sposato lost his wife Jody in 1993 during the 101 California shooting, one of the earliest mass shootings. He has been outspoken ever since on assault weapons and testified in 1994 to get the ban first passed in California.Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The controversial guns gained attention again this month after a California federal judge overturned the state’s 32-year-old ban on the sale of assault weapons. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who has struck down a number of California’s gun restrictions, went so far as to compare the AR-15-style rifle to a Swiss Army knife.

His words infuriated gun control proponents — including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called those comments a “disgusting slap in the face” to gun violence victims — and thrilled firearm advocates. The state attorney general appealed the judge’s ruling and the case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.