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Schooling a skeptic on stricter gun laws

First, let me come clean about guns. Aside from a Red Ryder BB gun, I have never possessed a gun. Sure, I have thought about getting one for protection, but I’ve never pulled the trigger to make it happen.

Even my BB gun experience lasted less than a half-hour. I received it as a birthday present when I turned 12 in 1951. We lived in an attached home to our Market Street grocery store in Summit Hill, which bordered on Summit Avenue - “avenue” is a euphemism for “alley” in my hometown.

I knew I was not supposed to fire the BB gun near homes, but I wanted to take just one quick shot to try out my new present. It was a Saturday morning, and I checked to make sure there was no one walking on Market Street or in the alley.

A bird perched on a telephone wire nearby, so this is where I would aim, away from where someone might suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Never in my wildest imagination did I ever expect to hit the bird, but I did, and it dropped from the wire to the ground, dead as a doornail.

I was so upset that I began crying that I had inadvertently killed something that just seconds earlier had been alive. My parents confiscated the BB gun, and that was the last time I saw it, or even wanted to see it. I am convinced that this unsettling experience colored my views about gun ownership for the rest of my life.

Despite this, I am not an anti-gun fanatic, and I respect anyone who chooses to own a gun legally and use it responsibly.

I must admit, however, that I don’t understand those who choose to own assault weapons, which have been at the center of the gun debate for years. So it was time to do some research to see whether I could find out why they are so popular.

The “assault weapons” for sale in the United States aren’t really weapons of war, as many suggest. Some mistake these firearms for machine guns capable of shooting multiple rounds of ammunition with a single pull of the trigger.

The federal government banned the sale of machine guns to civilians in 1986. Machine guns are almost never used in criminal activity, and none of the recent mass shootings in the United States involved a machine gun. So, here is a case where a gun law had been mostly successful in taking a deadly weapon off the market.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so around the same time, gunmakers started marketing ordinary rifles that look like military machine guns. The Colt AR-15 looks like the armed forces’ M-16.

According to Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law, these rifles are easy to use, even for beginners. They are accurate, have little kick and are highly customizable with add-ons such as special sights and grips. In part because of these attributes, and because of their sleek military styling, these guns have become popular among law-abiding gun owners, he said.

“Many gun owners see the firepower that assault weapons provide as a comforting form of insurance against government tyranny, crime and terrorism,” said gun rights activist Don Raso. Others say it is a thrill to go to a target range and blast away. One of my gun-owner friends compared the experience and thrills to my buying a fantasy ride in a Lamborghini and taking it speeding around a closed track.

I’m told that the only thing unique about assault rifles is their menacing name and look, and, Winkler said, it is these elements that make them such an appealing - if not particularly sensible - target of gun-control advocates.

California was the first state to ban the weapons in 1989 after a shooter used one to kill five schoolchildren in Stockton. A federal ban went into effect in 1994 but ended 10 years later. Eight states, including New York, have assault-weapon bans.

Winkler said these laws are pretty much ineffective, because it is difficult for legislators to regulate them realistically without banning half of the guns in the country - those that are semi-automatic and/or have detachable magazines - and many hunting rifles, as well.

According to Winkler, America’s gun debate suffers because of “unreasonable, extreme positions taken by the National Rifle Association.” He also believes, however, that gun-control advocates who push for bans on one kind of rifle primarily because it looks scary also contributes to the problem.

Based on my research, keeping in mind that I am not a gun owner, it seems that a commonsense approach to gun control would be universal background checks and a crackdown on rogue gun dealers.

I agree with Winkler that assault-weapon bans are not only ineffective policy but also bad politics.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.