IN 1990, UNDER THE GOODWILL of glasnost, Mikhail Kalashnikov, aging and poor, traveled outside the Soviet Union for the first time. He was the guest of Ed Ezell, small-arms curator at the Smithsonian Institution, who had visited Moscow two years earlier to meet the AK-47’s inventor as part of the museum’s program to videotape the twentieth century’s most influential inventors. Also in the collection were tapes of Eugene Stoner, inventor of the M-16, the AK’s rival.
Soon, the world’s gun titans would meet.
Prying Kalashnikov out of the Soviet Union had not been easy. Ezell wrote him a letter in 1972 through the Soviet embassy in Washington. When Kalashnikov received the envelope with a U.S. postmark he was both astonished and frightened. No one from the United States had ever contacted him before. Despite fame and notoriety in his home country, few outside the Soviet Union knew anything about the man whose weapon had changed the face of modern warfare. At home, he was a war hero who had helped protect the motherland and spread the Communist doctrine to every corner of the globe. To the rest of the world, his name symbolized two extremes—terrorism against legitimate governments and the struggle for freedom against ruthless dictators—but few knew that he was even alive. During the deadly conflicts of the cold war years, Soviet authorities purposely kept this man hidden from outsiders.
Fearful that government agents would deem the American’s note as his compliance in a subversive action, Kalashnikov contacted local Communist Party officials, who subjected him to a lengthy “consultation” during which they suggested he get in touch with the KGB. Kalashnikov’s first instinct upon discussing the unsolicited letter with the local KGB agent was to throw up his hands in an ignorant gesture. “Oh, no! Why should I ever write there, to the States?” After more than a year of these back-and-forth consultations, Kalashnikov received permission to respond to the letter with Ezell’s innocently requested items: a biography and a signed photograph.
The door opened.
Over the following years, Ezell mailed Kalashnikov several books he had authored, including The AK-47 Story, which he wrote by piecing together snippets of information about the history of Soviet firearms back to the 1800s, the AK-47, and Kalashnikov. With the softening of Soviet-U.S. relations in 1989, Ezell and a video crew met the sixty-nine-year-old Kalashnikov in Moscow for sightseeing and filming. At first apprehensive, Ezell was put at ease upon seeing an animated, congenial Kalashnikov, who greeted him with a hearty bear hug. It became clear to Ezell over the following days that Kalashnikov deemed the visit an important event for him, the first recognition of his contribution by those outside the Soviet Union. He was also flattered when Kalashnikov told him that he planned to have The AK-47 Story translated into Russian so he could see what Ezell and the English-speaking world knew about him.
Over the following days, the entourage visited firing ranges and museums, including Leningrad’s Central Museum of the Artillery, Engineer, and Communications Troops, which housed more than 120 types of AK rifles. Ezell soon understood that he was in the presence of a national celebrity whose name was known on the street by Soviet citizens, yet unknown elsewhere. In a private moment, away from the others, Kalashnikov confided to Ezell that he had appreciated the books he had sent over the years and his attention, but he was unable to express his appreciation during the cold war environment. Now he hoped this would change with the easing of tensions between the two superpowers.
And they were. During a later presentation before the Virginia Gun Collectors Association, Ezell spoke about his visit to Moscow and mentioned that he would like to bring Kalashnikov to the United States to meet Eugene Stoner but did not have funding in the Smithsonian budget. In concert with a hunting club called NORVA in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the group footed the bill for the arms maker, his daughter Elena, and an interpreter to visit.
On May 15, 1990, Kalashnikov arrived at Washington’s Dulles Airport, the first time he had been permitted to visit a foreign country. After decades of animosity between the two nations, Kalashnikov had worried about his treatment by the American bureaucracy, but his anxieties disappeared when Customs and Immigration officials moved him and his small group quickly through the line.
The next day was the big day. He and Stoner finally met at the Seaport Inn in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia, a restaurant where President George Washington had dined and slept two centuries earlier. Both men knew each other’s work intimately, but the two had never met or even corresponded, because the gulf of the cold war was too wide.
Before the gun makers met over dinner, Kalashnikov’s hosts took him shopping for new clothes to replace his tattered ones. The inventor of the world’s most popular firearm was so poor that his hosts gave him money for his purchases. He explained to them how the government had never patented his design, and it was licensed for free to many countries. Kalashnikov never saw a ruble from his work beyond his small government stipend. On a shopping trip to buy a pair of shoes, Kalashnikov didn’t see his size. He became dejected, until one of his hosts told him that the salesman could walk in the back and look for a different style in his size. His face brightened. This was typical of Kalashnikov’s Soviet perspective, where scarcity was commonplace and you made do without life’s niceties.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Stoner or Kalashnikov’s hosts. They saw a man whose invention was found in virtually every country, and had made millions of dollars for middlemen and gun dealers, yet he was a pauper who knew practically nothing of the outside world. His country had kept him purposely isolated.
These two symbols of the cold war were cordial as they discussed their competing weapons, but when they talked about money, Kalashnikov began to understand the stark difference between the Communist and capitalist marketplace. Stoner said that he made about one dollar per M-16 sold. At the time, about six million were in circulation. Kalashnikov admitted, sheepishly, that he made no money from his invention, which had sold ten times the number of M-16s, but added that he did it for the motherland, and it didn’t bother him a bit. Clearly, it did. The rest of the evening went well, but one could see Kalashnikov and his daughter engaged in lively but whispered discussions. They were talking about how much money Stoner enjoyed from the M-16 and scores of his other inventions. They were flabbergasted to learn that Stoner flew around the country in his own plane.
This visit to the United States opened Kalashnikov’s eyes. His government had awarded him medals and citations but no money. Schoolchildren knew his name and studied his contributions. He was a hero in Russia. On the other hand, Stoner had no military medals, and only gun enthusiasts and military historians knew his name, but he had benefited richly from his invention.
During dinner, Elena asked her father, “Would you like to trade places with Stoner?”
“No,” he answered, honestly and sincerely. Still, there was a trace of envy in his voice.
Over the following days, the arms designers visited the Smithsonian Institution, the NRA’s National Firearms Museum, and a hunting lodge owned by the gun club at Star Tannery, Virginia, near the West Virginia border. There, both men fired each other’s weapons, and it was clear that each understood the other’s firearm intimately. Stoner introduced Kalashnikov to skeet shooting and as the two fired in turn, Ezell noted how they had bonded, not needing an interpreter to get their thoughts across. He was fascinated at how well these two men got along. “They are self-made men,” Ezell later said. “Gene Stoner has made a lot of money and Kalashnikov has a lot of social status in the Soviet Union, but neither one of them is pompous. They are both down-to-earth people. Both are relaxed and secure in knowing they are good at what they do, but don’t have to bandy that about and try to impress anybody with it. I think that’s one of the reasons they get along.”
They also shared a sense of humor. In between skeet-shooting rounds, Kalashnikov relayed to Stoner how the AK-47 was field-tested for durability, drawn through mud, dragged over sand and brush. He asked Stoner how the M-16 stocks were tested, and Stoner replied that they were hoisted up a flagpole at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and dropped repeatedly. Kalashnikov responded, “In the Soviet Union, this is what they do to gun inventors whose guns jammed in combat.” This was a somewhat cutting remark about M-16s jamming in Vietnam but it was done goodnaturedly, as Kalashnikov knew that the rifle had malfunctioned because the army had insisted on using rounds that Stoner had not approved and had advised against deploying.
A high point of Kalashnikov’s visit was a trip to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, about thirty-five miles south of Washington, D.C. The base is widely known in military circles as the place where amphibious warfare techniques were conceived and tested, as well as the tactics of close air support using helicopters. The base is also home to the real-life FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, famous for its profiling of serial killers, which most people know through fictional characters such as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
The openness of the military base surprised Kalashnikov, especially when he was allowed to watch marine training in action. He also witnessed new firearms testing and was fascinated at how computers processed firing data in real time, allowing on-the-spot correction of production defects and other changes. “It’s very impressive here… the shooting ranges and the workshops,” said Kalashnikov. “I liked the U.S. Marines who I saw for the first time in my life… a year and half ago this would have been impossible just to imagine that.”
Kalashnikov received unexpected praise from Major General Matthew P. Caulfield, who was then deputy commander for training and education and the director of the Marine Air-Ground Training and Education Center. Caulfield remarked to the inventor, “I must admit that I personally would prefer to fire your gun in combat, Mr. Kalashnikov.” This candid comment came from a professional soldier who, as a captain, had commanded a company in Vietnam and participated in the siege at Khe Sanh, a turning point in the Vietnam War. Caulfield’s experience at Khe Sanh surely colored his remarks to Kalashnikov.
On January 21, 1968, a sudden and ferocious attack on the Khe Sanh Marine Corps base by North Vietnamese forces stunned and shocked Americans, including those in the Johnson administration who had underestimated the Communist resolve. Every night for almost two months, television news covered the siege as the North Vietnamese bombarded the base, even digging trenches and tunnels on the perimeter hoping to overrun the outpost from a close-in vantage point. Located only a few miles from the North Vietnamese border, Khe Sanh had become a symbol of U.S. determination in winning the war, and losing it was likened to the French loss at Dien Bien Phu, which, fourteen years earlier, had spelled the end of that country’s occupation. The battle sparked a public debate over whether Khe Sanh was of crucial strategic importance and worth the fight or simply a line drawn by commanders’ ego in the sand. Ultimately, U.S. forces prevailed, but not before 205 Americans were killed, with hundreds more wounded, and about 8,000 North Vietnamese dead. The military abandoned Khe San a few months later, which further eroded the American public’s support for the war as it appeared the base had no military value from the start. As it turned out, the vicious attack on Khe Sanh was a diversionary tactic designed to siphon off U.S. resources in preparation for the upcoming Tet Offensive.
With the Khe Sanh debacle still on his mind, Caulfield told Kalashnikov, “I always wanted to have a Kalashnikov, but there was one thing that stopped me. Your gun’s rate of fire was different from that of an M-16, and it had a different sound. If my soldiers had heard it, they would have opened fire on me thinking I was Vietcong.” Even today, now retired Caulfield remains bitter about the malfunctioning M-16s supplied to him and his men in Vietnam. “Everyone knew it but the damn generals,” he says.
KALASHNIKOV’S VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES opened a new world of travel for him and brought him notoriety beyond Russia’s borders. For the first time, people outside saw the man who gave his name to the world’s most popular weapon. Newspapers wrote stories about him. Filmmakers wanted to do documentaries about his life. All this attention was foreign to Kalashnikov, but he took it in stride, even enjoying the accolades once he got over the initial shock. All his adult life he had accepted the meager offerings of his country, because it was his patriotic duty. Now, no longer insulated from the rest of the world, he told his story to an interested and eager world press.
His story made great copy in the Western media because of the ironies surrounding Kalashnikov’s life. Here was a national hero, in his seventies, now a budding world figure living in a small apartment under spartan conditions with a pension amounting to fifty dollars a month. He wore a large cluster of honorary medals on his chest, but the only furniture in his three-room flat was bought in 1949 with money from his first Stalin Prize. Ironically, it was Stalin who had exiled his family to Siberia.
His tragic personal life was revealed for the first time in public. His wife, Yekaterina, had died twenty years earlier after a long illness. She was a graphic artist who had helped him with his gun drawings. They married in 1943 and each brought one child from a previous marriage. His wife’s daughter was named Katya, and Kalashnikov had a son, Viktor, who became an arms designer in his own right. Growing up, Viktor did not live with Kalashnikov and Yekaterina until his natural mother died. The couple had two daughters of their own: Elena, the oldest, who continues to travel with her father, and Natasha, who died in a car crash at the age of twenty-nine. With that accident, Kalashnikov lost not only a daughter but also a companion. After his wife died, Natasha had moved in with her father, helping the elderly man in his daily routine. Natasha is buried next to her mother’s grave, and Kalashnikov built a fence that he designed himself around the two headstones. Like his rifle, the fence is simple, sturdy, and reliable.
With his new fame, however, Kalashnikov soon received invitations from all over, and his spirits rose. During the following years he traveled to China, Bulgaria, Argentina, and again to the United States in 1991 as the guest of Bill Ruger, president of gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co., which produced a range of firearms, the most famous being a .22-caliber Long Rifle that started the company in 1949. During this U.S. trip, Kalashnikov made a guest appearance at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City and attended a reception for firearms magazine writers.
With all this attention, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, prodded by a high-ranking military officer, was shamed into upping Kalashnikov’s pension to about $100 a month. He also received a small wooden vacation home, or dacha, and driver/companion courtesy of the government, but there was another reason why the government began treating their national treasure better.
By this time, it was clear to Russian officials that Kalashnikov was becoming a celebrity, a man whose name was instantly recognizable. He possessed a cachet that could open doors to arms buyers. Russian officials witnessed his drawing power when he visited arms shows and people rushed over for his autograph or shoved through lines to take a picture with the inventor of the famous AK-47. Kalashnikov was affable; people enjoyed talking to him, even if they were not particularly fond of Russia’s ideology. Besides, Kalashnikov, now in his seventies, with a shock of white hair, seemed harmless, and the powerful Soviet Union, once a bitter enemy of the West, had dissolved. People seeing this humble, diminutive, frail man for the first time were taken aback and intrigued. They had trouble reconciling the vision of the man before them with what they imagined the inventor of the notorious AK-47 should look like. Could the kind-looking gentleman standing before them really be the creator of such a deadly weapon?
Kalashnikov retold his story many times: how he got the idea while recuperating in a wartime hospital, how he wanted to protect the motherland from the Nazis, and how he hadn’t made a cent from his steel progeny. The Russian told the story at the now defunct Houston Astrodomain Complex during a trade show for sporting firearms and outdoor gear. He was there to drum up excitement for the Saiga, a version of the AK modified for hunting.
Named after an antelope that lives on the steppes of Russia, the Saiga was an act of desperation. The Soviet Union was unraveling politically, culturally, and financially. By the late 1980s, it could no longer support a robust military and had cut expenditures on weapons by 14 percent in 1989; further cuts were expected. By 1991, Izhmash, a.k.a. Izhevsk Machine Works, the country’s prime armorer and home of the AK, was in deep trouble. The factory had at one time employed fifty thousand people. Now only thirty thousand worked there, and more than half of them were part-timers or what was euphemistically known as being on “forced vacation.” Like others at the plant, Kalashnikov, who retained the title of chief designer, had not been paid in months. Just to feed their families, some rogue Izhmash engineers had built guns for the growing legions of Russian mobsters who took advantage of the chaotic situation as the old Soviet Union stumbled into financial meltdown.
When the USSR finally dissolved in 1992, Izhmash faced a shutdown. In a last-ditch effort to keep the factories operating, its managers looked outside their domestic markets for revenue, but with the cold war over and the world awash in indestructible AKs, selling military small arms like their 100-series AKs met largely with failure.
Looking to tap the civilian market, Izhmash designers turned out a series of semiautomatic hunting rifles and shotguns based on the Kalashnikov basic action. Not only was the AK design tried and true, but they had a plan to sell the firearms by exploiting the Kalashnikov mystique.
While in Houston shilling these hunting rifles, Kalashnikov met Stoner, who was also fronting for civilian versions of his M-16, which had been licensed out for years to several gun makers as hunting rifles. Stoner was already semiretired, living in Vero Beach, Florida.
Still friends, the two did not have much time to talk during the show. Both were busy tending their booths, trying to attract visitors and buyers. When asked by a reporter what he thought of the AK-47, Stoner said, “The Kalashnikov weapon was a good one, but his was different [than the M-16] because the requirements under which he was to build it were different. The Russians wanted a weapon simple and rugged and weight was not a factor.” He was referring to the fact that the M-16 was about four pounds lighter than the AK. When asked about the M-16, Kalashnikov simply nodded with approval. Compared to Stoner, Kalashnikov was a bigger arms personality, drawing curious gawkers and determined autograph seekers.
Amid all the accolades and fascinated onlookers, the world beyond the closed Soviet Union forced Kalashnikov to confront publicly the impact of his invention. Western reporters wanted to know how he felt about his brainchild’s being responsible for killing millions of people and wreaking abject destruction on several continents. Kalashnikov again said that with the Nazi invasion of his country, all he could think about was getting better weapons into the hands of Soviet soldiers. He expressed regret, however, that criminals in his own country were using the AK. “I am sorry brothers are killing each other with a rifle I made to fight the occupiers of my country.”
This small, modest man who had been kept under wraps by his country for more than half a century was out in the open now and confronting a free press that demanded to know even more about his life and his invention. He took every opportunity to defend his work, blaming politicians for exploiting the AK in deadly ways. Sometimes the questions got to him, and he erupted curtly, angry that he was being held liable for his invention’s legacy. “Arms builders have never been given their just deserts in this country [the Soviet Union]. If the politicians had worked as hard as we did, the guns would never have gotten into the wrong hands,” he said. He expressed great sadness at Russians killing Russians with AKs during ethnic clashes that grew out of the Soviet breakup. He was horrified to learn that Soviet soldiers were stealing AKs from armories and selling or trading them for bottles of vodka. Kalashnikov kept on message, though, stressing that the AK was designed to protect his nation’s borders and that it should never have been used for internal conflicts such as those occurring in Africa, Latin America, and, sadly, his own country.
Kalashnikov, now a public figure and feeling freer to offer his opinion, met with Boris Yeltsin and told him that he saw no reason to have broken up the Soviet Union. Like many other Russians, he longed for the old USSR and abhorred the domestic chaos that was becoming commonplace. The motherland that he had fought for was now dealing with civil strife and corruption.
With his seventy-fifth birthday coming up, Kalashnikov found himself further bombarded by interview requests. Western reporters, now permitted to travel about Russia more freely than before, accompanied him on hunting trips and visited him in his home in Izhevsk, which had been closed to foreigners because of the arms factories located there. Most times, they portrayed Kalashnikov as a simple person who rightfully bristled at seemingly obvious and repetitive questions about his weapon’s grim legacy. He tried to keep his annoyance in check when the question was asked over and over, “How do you feel about your gun being used to kill innocent people?” Other times, another side would peek out. He seemed almost pompous, arrogant in the belief that no other weapon could ever supersede the AK’s utility, proud that his country had beat back the invading Nazi hordes, and he rarely missed an opportunity to chide politicians who made decisions he deemed contrary to common sense.
Observers also took note of Kalashnikov the reluctant capitalist, a poor man attempting to make up for lost time. Arms factories in the area around Izhevsk formed the Joint Stock Company Kalashnikov to produce and market civilian weapons turned out by the old military facilities. They made Kalashnikov their honorary president, hoping that his name would draw attention as they sent him around to various trade shows. Kalashnikov signed on, albeit reluctantly. “I did not make the weapon in order to sell it, but at a time when it was needed to save the motherland,” he had said when the idea of selling civilian versions of AKs was first floated several years earlier.
As Russia looked to the AK and its famous inventor for hard currency, American lawmakers put the weapon in their sights, too. As the world’s most distinctive-looking assault rifle, the AK was the poster child for those who wanted these weapons banned from the United States in a movement that had started several years earlier but was now quickly building momentum.
THE FIRST AKS SEEN IN THE UNITED STATES probably were brought back by soldiers returning from the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of these had their firing pins removed or were otherwise disabled, and were kept as souvenirs by former GIs who were fascinated by the weapon responsible for driving American forces from Southeast Asia. As the weapon’s notoriety spread to the general public, more of them began to be imported.
Although their importation seemed contrary to the 1968 Gun Control Act—passed in the wake of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—which prohibited the importation of any firearm unless it was “generally recognized as particularly suitable or readily adaptable to sporting purposes,” the government’s focus was really on handguns. The main thrust of the bill was to outlaw cheap imported handguns like the so-called Saturday night specials because they had no recreational value. Some of these handguns were so inexpensive and poorly made that they fell apart after firing and had to be discarded after only their maiden job. Nobody paid much attention to assault rifles at the time because few were being imported. In addition, when the subject arose, proponents made the case, albeit dubious to those on the other side of the issue, that these weapons had hunting and target-shooting value.
As the source of cheap handguns dried up, Uzi and AK imports grew in popularity. Timing was not the only reason. Part of this new interest in assault rifles was fueled by economic and mechanical factors related to the weapons, in addition to an emergence of street violence spurred by drugs and gang activities.
Economically, Israel enjoyed a “most favored nation” status with the United States as far as import duties were concerned. As a result, the Uzi submachine gun sold for as little as $500 when first introduced to the U.S. market in 1980. Because of its small caliber and short range, it was ideal for drive-by shootings and close-in gang fights. Although the civilian export version was sold in semiautomatic mode only, it could be converted to automatic action, albeit illegally, by using a kit. It became a favorite of drug dealers and gang members, because it could be easily hidden underneath jackets then quickly exposed to fire 9mm bullets at the rate of 600 per minute. Magazines came in 25-, 32-, or 40-round versions. Like the submachine guns used during World War II, these Uzis had no sporting purpose. They were designed to kill people.
The same was true of the AK, which arrived on U.S. shores in the mid-1980s, mainly from China. It too enjoyed a low price because of China’s favored nation trade status. The AK began to usurp the place of the Uzi because it was $200 less and possessed an aura of counterculture and rebellion that appealed to drug dealers and gang members. Like the Uzi, the import model was sold as a semiautomatic weapon only, but conversion kits for full automatic firing were sold on the black market.
As gun enthusiasts argued that these weapons could be used for hunting and recreational purposes such as target shooting and were therefore protected by the Gun Control Act, their opinions were being drowned out by a nationwide string of shootings involving “assault rifles.” Even the term “assault rifle” would become a point of contention between gun enthusiasts and those who opposed them. There is no universal definition of an assault rifle. Indeed, this is one of the problems that crop up when legislators try to write laws that limit their import, sale, and use. In general, assault rifles are characterized by several salient features: they can be used in semiautomatic or automatic mode, have low weight, fire intermediate rounds, have high-capacity magazines, and are usually intended to be used as a military weapon. Gun opponents often used the term to mean anything that looked like an AK or M-16 rifle, even if it only fired in semiautomatic mode. This distinction later would play a crucial part in gun control legislation and the rhetoric surrounding it.
Semantics aside, one incident in particular garnered the attention of the nation, and indeed the world, because of its horrific nature.
On January 17, 1989, twenty-four-year-old Patrick Edward Purdy, a.k.a. Patrick West, parked his eleven-year-old Chevrolet station wagon outside a Stockton, California, elementary school. Before leaving the car, he lit a fuse stuffed into the neck of a beer bottle filled with gasoline and tossed it onto the front seat.
As two open gasoline cans sat in the backseat ready to explode, Purdy, dressed in military fatigues and flak jacket, sauntered through a hole in a fence and into the schoolyard where four hundred first- to third-graders were playing during their noon recess. On his shirt, he had written “PLO,” “Libya,” “Earthman,” and “Death to the Great Satin,” an obvious misspelling.
Lori Mackey, who taught deaf children at Cleveland Elementary School, looked out her classroom window and watched a straight-faced Purdy, standing in place, not talking or yelling, make wide sweeping motions with what turned out to be a semiautomatic AK from China. “It did not look like he was really angry,” said Mackey, who led her children to the safety of a rear room. Kids and teachers ran in every direction trying to escape the bullet storm. The rampage ended about a minute later when Purdy shot himself in the head with a 9mm Taurus pistol.
When police and paramedics arrived, they found five dead children, mainly refugees from Southeast Asia, and more than thirty others wounded. Next to Purdy’s body they discovered a 75-round rotary magazine, a 30-round banana magazine, and shell casings showing that he had fired 110 of the 7.62 × 39mm rounds. Purdy, who had purchased the AK in Portland, Oregon, carried three extra magazines marked with the words “humanoids,” “evil,” and the initials “SSA,” which authorities believed may have meant Social Security Administration. Purdy had received Social Security benefits and apparently was not satisfied with the government’s handling of his case. He also had two boxes of unused ammunition with him.
Purdy had carved into the stock of the Chinese-made AK, technically known as the SKS Type 56 (used often by Vietcong during the Vietnam War) the words “Freedom,” “Victory,” and “Hezbollah,” the Middle Eastern terrorist group that has the AK on its flag. (The AK is also seen on the flag and emblems of other terrorist groups. The Palestinian Liberation Front, which operates in the Middle East, has an AK; a map of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and present-day Israel; and a Soviet-type red star in its emblem.
This AK-wielding soldier in southern Lebanon stands in front of the flag of Hezbollah (Party of God), a terrorist group founded in that country in 1982. The flag uses the imagery of an AK gripped in an outstretched arm on top of a globe, suggesting the group’s violent role in worldwide affairs. © Mike Stewart/Corbis Sygma
The Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which operates mainly in North Africa, has a sword, Koran, and AK in its coat of arms.)
Authorities suggested that Purdy, who, ironically, shared the same November 10th birthday as Mikhail Kalashnikov, and had attended the Cleveland Elementary School as a youth, may have grown resentful of the large number of Southeast Asian refugees living in Stockton. He had expressed bitterness about his teenage life to coworkers—he had worked as a machinist—complaining about absent parents and alcoholism. In the hotel room where he had been living before the shooting, police found tiny green plastic soldiers, tanks, and jeeps set up to battle on the floor.
The incident proved to be a catalyst for action in California and later for the rest of the nation.
On February 6, 1989, less than a month after the Stockton schoolyard shootings, the Los Angeles city council passed by a twelve-to-zero vote a ban on the sale and possession of semiautomatic weapons. Owners had fifteen days to either dispose of the weapons or change them to comply with the law. The council’s action followed a similar law enacted by Stockton only two days earlier.
This movement had been gaining traction for some time, but the killings in Stockton propelled it quickly. Ordinary citizens were learning the differences among automatic, semiautomatic, and single-shot weapons—information few people had needed to know before. On the East Coast, Washington, D.C., in the throes of growing gang- and drug-related deaths, had already passed a law restricting semiautomatic weapons.
Gun enthusiasts argued that the deaths in Stockton as well as other recent high-profile incidents were not, as had been portrayed in the media, caused by assault rifles but by semiautomatic rifles, but these protests only served to fuel the controversy. Opponents portrayed the technicalities as nitpicking, and with children dead and police officers outgunned, they thought the distinction petty and typical of gun enthusiasts who they believed were more interested in minor mechanical differences than in human lives.
One of the hot points was the number of rounds in the magazine. The law in Washington, D.C., banned weapons with magazines carrying more than eleven rounds; in Los Angeles, the cutoff was twenty rounds. The bullet-limiting provisions were crucial in the fight against any argument that these weapons could be used for hunting, because most hunters got only one shot off when stalking prey—partly because of the “one-shot” tradition of hunters but also because hunted animals, such as deer, bolt after hearing the first missed shot.
Even former president Ronald Reagan, a staunch supporter of gun owners’ rights, had changed his mind about assault rifles. During his first public appearance after leaving office, Reagan answered questions from University of Southern California students after a speech. Asked by one student about his stance on gun control in light of the Stockton shootings, Reagan remarked, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen to own guns for sporting, hunting and so forth.” The seventy-eight-year-old ex-president continued, “But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon.” Although Reagan was mistaken in labeling the AK as a machine gun, his remarks were of great comfort to the antigun lobby, which had always considered Reagan, and Republican politicians in general, as opponents of antigun legislation.
President George H. W. Bush found himself modifying his position on assault weapons, too. He acknowledged that the national discussion about semiautomatic weapons “had gotten pretty hot.” He noted the public outcry about children being killed by assault rifles and said that a temporary ban by his administration—begun two days earlier on imports of the AK, Uzi carbine, and three other semiautomatic weapons—“represented a heightened concern on my part about AK-47s.” The U.S. drug czar, William Bennett, had urged the suspension of more than 110,000 import permits for assault rifles, mainly AKs and Uzi carbines, to give the administration breathing room to evaluate whether these weapons were suitable for sport and recreation activities, and if a permanent ban was appropriate.
Bush, a lifelong National Rifle Association member, had always opposed bans on semiautomatic rifles, so this turnaround was indicative of the country’s mood and concern about these weapons’ destructive power. The Bush change of heart surprised many people, especially those in the NRA and other gun groups who had always counted him as a staunch ally.
It was a bold move by the administration considering the power of the gun lobby. Indeed, since the temporary import ban was announced, the White House was abuzz about alleged warnings from gun groups who threatened to politically destroy Bush and Bennett using their massive war chest and ability to rally members. Although NRA officials denied any strong-arm tactics, the administration was incensed that it was being portrayed as an enemy of gun owners. Publicly, Bennett acknowledged that his office had received a lot of phone calls and pressure from “third parties,” although he did not name any specific people or groups.
The times were changing for many law enforcement agencies, too. Police chiefs from many large U.S. cities banded together to lobby against the spread of assault rifles. In retrospect, this move appears obvious, but at the time, many police officers, often gun enthusiasts and hunters themselves, bristled at any law that restricted gun ownership. Now, with police officers outgunned on the streets, they started to see the debate in a different light.
The administration, not wanting to pick a fight with gun groups but not wanting to back down from their position either, called for all sides to take a deep breath and consider the issue calmly. “Let’s cool off,” Bennett told them. He reassured gun owners that this was not the beginning of a movement to ban all guns. He noted that since the import ban took effect—and Colt had voluntarily suspended sales of AR-15s, the civilian version of the M-16—Americans had begun buying semiautomatic rifles in large numbers, which was an error on their part. “If people are doing this because they think this could mean the end of guns, that no more guns would be available, then they are mistaken.” Whether the sales jump was indicative of an NRA fear campaign or simply individual initiative was unclear, but Bennett reassured people that an all-out ban on guns was not in the future. “On the other hand, he added, “the ‘anything goes’ idea—let’s just get our hands on any kind of weapon—I think that’s a view of the world that’s not shared by most Americans, by most members of the National Rifle Association, but I think an awful lot of people out there are concerned about the kind of firepower that we’re seeing used in our streets.”
The winds of public opinion convinced President Bush to make the import ban permanent, and what many opponents had said would happen under such a ban did indeed occur. Prices of the forty-three weapons banned from importation in July 1989 rose dramatically just prior to the ban. In January, the price of an AK was $300, but just after the ban became permanent, the price spiked at more than $1,000 in some parts of the country. More important, because pre-ban weapons from company stockpiles would be allowed for sale, companies rushed to produce as many as they could and ship them to U.S. stores. In addition, U.S. gun makers ramped up production of domestic lookalike assault rifles called “copycats.” Made in the United States, these were unaffected by the import ban. The homegrown weapons were made to look and shoot like the imported models. Many of the companies that make them still exist, and if it were not for the import ban, they would never have been established in the first place.
Foreign gun makers found ways around the import ban by following the letter of the law. Within a year, a half dozen foreign gun makers had applied for permission to import assault rifles that were altered to meet the criteria for export to the United States. For example, characteristics of a banned assault rifle included a fifteen- (or more) round magazine, a pistol grip (so the gun could be held by one hand and shot from the hip in a spraying fashion), bayonet holders, and grenade launchers. For many gun exporters, it was a simple matter to offer only ten-shot magazines, cut off the bayonet holders, and eliminate the pistol grip and replace it with a thumbhole in the stock. The thumbhole still allowed one-hand, spray-from-the-hip firing, Rambo style, but fell neatly within the letter of the law.
Of the approximately three million semiautomatic weapons owned by Americans at the time, about 25 percent were foreign models, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Without the ban, about 700,000 to one million more would have been imported, officials estimated. In that respect, the ban was successful. On the other hand, it spawned a new industry of copycat rifles that had not existed before the ban.
Supporters of national legislation to ban assault rifles (again, technically, semiautomatic rifles) were led by California senator Dianne Feinstein, who dramatically made her point about the dangers of these rifles by holding up AKs at news conferences. The familiar and menacing weapon with its signature banana-shaped magazine drew attention as she listed the incidents in which assault rifles had killed people. Her message hit home.
Momentum was building on a national level, propelled by still more cases of street violence and the specter of a new and horrific practice—drive-by shootings—most of it drug- and gang-related. Despite the obvious flaws of the Bush import ban, lawmakers sought similar national legislation, and they strove to eliminate the loopholes this time.
As the national debate heated up, some of the largest U.S. gun makers tried to home in on what they perceived as the hot-button issue: the large-capacity magazine. If they could get Congress to focus on this particular matter as the root of the problem, then they might escape more severe restrictions. They had been successful in getting the Bush administration to focus on the magazine capacity as the focal point of their import ban, and they wanted to extend this to any national legislation that was bound to follow.
Thirteen gun makers, with William Ruger as their point man, led the charge as a group called the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). The group also included well-known gun makers Winchester and Smith & Wesson. “Semiautomatic firearms as such should not be the object of any legislative prohibition,” SAAMI’s official position noted. “It is actually the large-magazine capacity, rather than the semiautomatic operation, which is the proper focus of this debate.” Ruger again hammered home the technical point that there was no such thing as a semiautomatic assault rifle, and this resonated with gun owners who felt that their weapons were unfairly portrayed. But when Ruger publicly reiterated the group’s stance, that magazines should be held to fifteen rounds, he attracted the anger of these same gun owners who felt betrayed by the high-profile gun maker whom they had considered an ally in their fight against firearm restrictions.
Many in the gun community could not understand Ruger’s position of giving in to any kind of limitations, offering any type of concessions. They did not understand that Ruger and his SAAMI colleagues were hoping to head off more restrictive legislation. Ruger also hoped to save his own Mini-14, a popular semiautomatic, but during the contentious months ahead he was portrayed by pro-gun groups as a Benedict Arnold. He was also compared to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who had appeased Adolf Hitler in the hope of avoiding World War II only to see Germany grow more emboldened and belligerent.
Congressional lawmakers spent five years trying to pass an assault rifle ban, without success, but they got the boost they needed from another high-profile case involving an AK. This time, the violence struck close to their Capitol Hill offices.
On January 22, 1993, Aimal Kansai, a twenty-nine-year-old Pakistani citizen, enraged by U.S. policy toward Muslim nations, traded in his AR-15 (bought a few days earlier) and purchased a Chinese-version AK at a Virginia gun shop. Three days later, he stopped his car on Dolley Madison Boulevard next to a line of cars waiting to turn into the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
He later wrote that he wanted to kill CIA director James Woolsey or his predecessor, Robert Gates, but he knew that entry to the secure facility would be impossible. He settled for aiming his AK point-blank at a group of commuters waiting to make a left turn. Firing through their car windows, Kansai shot and killed two CIA employees and injured three others before he sped away.
Police found shell casings at the scene and knew they were from an AK. As they canvassed local gun shops, they received a call from Kansai’s roommate, who reported the man missing. He had last seen Kansai on the day of the shootings. Two days later, the roommate called police again, telling them that he thought Kansai might have been involved in the shootings.
When police searched the apartment, they found an AK and several other rifles. They also discovered clothes that matched witnesses’ descriptions and what appeared to be car window glass stuck to the clothing. Subsequent ballistics tests showed that the shell casings found at the scene matched Kansai’s AK. The glass matched the shot-out car windows.
The Washington, D.C., area was stunned by the randomness of the crime. Even though the victims were CIA employees, and one was in covert operations, many in the region saw them as regular people killed on their way to the office on an ordinary Monday morning. It could have been almost anybody. The CIA “hardened” its entrance (the building itself is about a quarter mile in from the entry point) with round-the-clock manned SUVs and security teams sitting in cars up and down Dolley Madison Boulevard. Rolling patrols started as construction began on a permanent security booth with bulletproof windows.
Kansai had flown to Pakistan a day after the shooting, and despite the CIA’s and FBI’s best efforts, they could not get their hands on him for another four and a half years. (Eventually he was extradited to Virginia, tried, and executed for murder.) During his absence, however, the assault rifle ban moved ahead in Congress, buoyed by stories on television and in newspapers about how easy it was for Kansai to purchase his AK and emphasizing that these weapons were not for sport as the gun lobby had led many to believe but were designed to kill people. Like the Stockton shooting, the incident pushed many lawmakers who had been on the fence into voting for restrictions. This, along with stories about the use of AKs in Africa and South America, pushed even ardent pro-gun lawmakers into changing their position.
On September 13, 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned the manufacture, transfer, and possession of certain semiautomatic weapons. Many gun owners were furious at the new law and stepped up their criticism of Ruger, because this time, instead of a limit of fifteen rounds per magazine, the number was now ten. They believed that if the famous gun maker had not pushed for the fifteen-round limit for the import ban Congress would not have lowered it still further.
In a break for gun owners, though, Congress grandfathered weapons and magazines manufactured before the ban. Aside from the magazines being limited to ten rounds, semiautomatics could not have folding or telescoping stocks (to prevent secreting under clothes), a pistol grip (to prevent rapid hip firing), a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor (flash suppressors prevent the enemy from locating your position in the dark), or a grenade launcher. The ban also applied similar criteria to semiautomatic pistols and semiautomatic shotguns.
The act outlawed exact copycats and lookalike guns, but the wording still provided loopholes similar to those in the import ban. Whether the law actually prevented crimes was an issue that continues to draw debate. A report by the National Institute of Justice in March 1999, covering the years 1994 through 1996, noted that the ban had clear-cut, unintended short-term effects on the gun market. For example, not only did manufacturers step up production while the ban was being debated—giving many thousands of rifles “pre-ban” protection—but prices rose dramatically, more than 50 percent in some cases, during the year before the ban took effect and then fell afterward. This suggests that the weapons became generally more available after the ban, probably from the stockpile of pre-ban weapons and from new copycats that hit the market. Also, there was a measurable short-term drop in criminal use of the banned weapons after the act, according to law enforcement officials who monitored so-called tracing requests of weapons used in crimes.
Within a few months of the ban, however, it became clear to almost everyone that the loopholes were so large that they rendered the law’s intentions largely useless. Proponents said it was better than no law, but its full intent certainly was being thwarted. Even gun makers noted that the law did little to get banned rifles out of the hands of criminals. Colt president Ron Whittaker said that the ban was simply about cosmetics: “We had a crime bill that was supposed to focus on crime, and hopefully, criminals. We ended up with an assault weapons ban that has nothing to do with defining assault weapons, but it had a lot to do with what something looks like.” His company’s Sporter rifle did not pass the ban test until it had the flash suppressor removed and the pistol grip altered. It was then sold under the name Match Target. “They passed a cosmetic law, and now they’re [Congress] sitting back saying, ‘Oh, woe is me…. People are changing the cosmetics!’ I don’t understand that logic.”
Copycats and pre-ban stockpiles filled gun buyers’ needs, and gun makers readily advertised post-ban models alongside their outlawed kin that were no longer for sale. The inference was obvious: these were basically the same weapon. The gun industry called altering a firearm to legal status “sporterization,” which sometimes meant only changing a minor detail such as removing the flash suppressor or taking away the threaded portion of the barrel to prevent a suppressor from being mounted. Manufacturers had learned how to fit within the letter of the law from their experience getting around the import ban. AKs, for example, banned by the Bush import restriction, were resurrected by China’s NORINCO as the MAK-90, which stood for Modified AK-1990—modified to go around the 1989 import ban. Not only was the pistol grip replaced by a thumbhole in the stock, but a nut was welded at the barrel’s end to prevent a flash suppressor from being screwed in. In addition, the bayonet lug was machined down so a bayonet could not be mounted. More MAK-90s were imported from China than any other country, and they remain one of the most popular, because they are inexpensive and plentiful.
When the 1994 ban took affect, Russian gun makers also saw an opportunity to make money. Vyatskie Polyany Machine Building Plant, or MOLOT (which means “hammer”), produced the VEPR, their “sporterized” version of the AK. The VEPR was actually based on the RPK, the light machine gun version of the AK. The action worked the same as the AK, but the receiver (the main frame of a firearm) was a little thicker and stiffer.
Gun magazines, which had opposed the ban in editorials, understood that the act had a bigger bark than bite and reveled in its impotence. In essence, the pro-gunners had won. A story in Gun World bore this out: “In spite of assault rifle bans, bans on high capacity magazines, the ranting of the anti-gun media and the rifle’s innate political incorrectness, the Kalashnikov in various forms and guises, has flourished. Today there are probably more models, accessories and parts to choose from than ever before.”
Senator Feinstein admitted that while many gun makers were getting around the spirit of the law, its most important part, the limit on magazine size to ten rounds, still was a great step forward, but this turned out not to be the case either. Gun dealers had mountains of high-capacity pre-ban magazines on hand, enough to last ten years—when the law was set to expire. Moreover, some gun dealers became even more creative, especially with the pistol section of the law that limited the number of bullets a pistol could hold. They offered police departments an exchange of new pistols and magazines for their old ones, which they could then legally sell to the public because they were produced before the ban. Since new, large-capacity pistols were allowed for sale to law enforcement agencies, this system added to gun dealers’ stocks for public consumption. Most police agencies shied away from the offer.
“If I could have gotten fifty-one votes in the Senate,” Feinstein lamented, “for an outright ban, picking up every one of them, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren’t here.”
But even such an outright ban would not have prevented the most vicious police standoff in Los Angeles history, sparking a nationwide debate about how best to arm law enforcement officers against the growing numbers of assault rifles being used against them. Police around the country were scared. They were under-armed, facing criminals carrying AKs and other high-powered assault rifles.
ON FEBRUARY 28, 1997, less than a week after the Russian Army Museum opened an exhibit celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the AK, two men, armed with M-16s and AKs, and both wearing masks and body armor, entered the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America. With their nerves steeled by phenobarbital, veteran bank robbers Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu pushed a hostage into the bank door as Los Angeles Police Department officers came upon the scene by chance. Officer Loren Farell, a nine-year veteran and his partner, Martin Perello, who had been on the job for only eighteen months, were on patrol. Perello, driving slowly, casually eyed the bank, checking the door of the division’s busiest bank as he always did. Farell was making entries in his administrative log when his partner yelled, “Two-eleven!”—robbery in progress.
Perello described two men dressed like Ninja Turtles pushing someone through the front door. Both officers then saw the rifles. After the officers requested backup, they took cover just outside the bank and heard automatic fire from inside. “Witnesses report suspects are shooting AK-47s,” officers at the scene radioed the dispatcher so she could warn others who were on their way. “Subjects are firing AK-47s…. Stay down!” Then, “Officer down!”
They warned helicopters to keep their distance as the robbers exited the bank, spraying the area with hundreds of steel-jacketed bullets. Armed as they were with only 9mm pistols, their bullets bounced off the robbers’ armor. Patrol officers could do nothing but wait for reinforcements. “It was like throwing a rock at a wall,” Officer John Goodman later said. They also knew that their own vests would not protect them against the AK rounds. Several more officers lay injured.
As additional officers arrived, they could do little but hide behind their cars for protection. They watched helplessly as their patrol cars’ tires exploded, windows shattered, and steel side panels were riddled with holes. They soon discovered that the only parts of their vehicles that the robbers’ bullets could not penetrate were the massive engine blocks, so they hid behind them. Helicopters, hovering just out of firing range, offered a brutal bird’s-eye view of the surreal, close-in firefight, with the gunmen calmly changing magazines including hundred-round drums.
The city and world watched as these two heavily armed men kept L.A.’s finest at bay and the city partially paralyzed. Nine nearby elementary schools went into lockdown. Area residents were told to stay inside, or call 911 if they had to leave for an urgent trip. Police closed the bustling Hollywood Freeway in both directions, causing massive traffic tie-ups.
In what they later termed “willpower beats firepower,” police officers exhibited great bravery. In one instance, they drove a car through a parking lot across the street from the bank, flung open the doors, and scooped up a wounded colleague. Taking heavy fire, they punched the car into reverse and sped out of range to a waiting ambulance.
The siege continued, and police were powerless to stop the bank robbers. The call had gone out to SWAT, but it would take twenty to thirty minutes for them to arrive. In an attempt to close the firepower gap, several officers found a nearby gun shop and borrowed two AR-15s, a shotgun, and high-powered hunting rifles with telescopic sights. “These people had body armor and they needed something that would break body armor,” the store owner said. “We supplied them with slugs that would at least break bones on someone wearing body armor.” One detective lamented, “They’re waving AK-47s, and I have a nine-millimeter. I’m in the wrong place with the wrong gun.”
In the end, Phillips shot himself in the head as officers fired upon him at close range after his AK malfunctioned. SWAT team members killed Matasareanu a few minutes later as he tried to steal a pickup truck and escape. They fired underneath their car, hitting him in his unprotected foot. Then they shot him as he folded, and he bled to death.
When the shooting was done, the area looked like a war zone, with police and civilian cars riddled with bullet holes. Miraculously, of the eleven officers and six civilians shot, none were killed.
The incident shocked police around the country, who considered it a breach of the unwritten code of conduct between police and criminals. Law enforcement had long been complaining about the gun situation, but now the public understood firsthand as they watched it unfold on their TV sets, and later through a movie entitled 44 Minutes. That year, the LAPD Annual Report included a special five-page section on the shootout. In it, Lieutenant Nick Zingo, in charge of the North Hollywood Division that morning, summed up the incident’s meaning: “Bank robbers are supposed to go in, get the money and leave. If they get trapped inside, they’re supposed to take hostages and make SWAT come and talk them out. That’s the norm. They’re not supposed to come outside and take on patrol officers…. It’s not supposed to happen that way.”
Police officers around the country suffered the same “outgunned” feeling, especially when confronting drug dealers and gang members armed with AKs and Uzis. Some called for parity to protect officers, while others suggested restraint to protect the public against assault rifles becoming everyday police weapons. L.A. police chief Willie Williams found himself at the center of the controversy. His rank and file had asked months earlier for greater firepower for patrol officers. Williams sat on the proposal, unsure that placing high-powered rifles in the hands of patrol officers (as opposed to specially trained SWAT units) was in the public interest. “You can’t equip our general patrol officer with an AK-47,” he said at a news conference. “We’re supposed to live in somewhat of a civilized society.”
Several months later, the Pentagon donated six hundred M-16s to the Los Angeles Police Department. The weapons were converted from automatic to semiautomatic and were to be carried in the trunks of sergeants on patrol. All officers were also authorized to carry a .45-caliber pistol instead of their 9mm sidearm because of the better stopping power of the larger bullet against criminals wearing body armor. Ironically, the 9mm pistols were issued a year earlier because officers had complained that their .38-caliber revolvers fired too slowly and they were being outgunned by criminals using 9mm handguns.
Law enforcement agencies around the United States began equipping their officers with semiautomatic rifles, pointing to the Los Angeles incident or one in their own area that had not garnered media attention. Some departments, like the Palm Bay, Florida, police, already had been carrying AR-15s in their patrol cars after an incident in 1987 in which a gunman killed six people including two officers. They were the exception, as most police agencies allowed only SWAT officers to carry assault rifles even though in many areas it could take up to two hours for SWAT teams to arrive.
SWAT teams were not designed for fast deployment. These specially trained and outfitted officers normally responded to blockade and hostage situations in which time was not of the essence. Usually, the longer a barricade situation lasted, the better the outcome as both sides tended to negotiate a nonviolent end. Now, times were different. Criminals were wielding assault rifles to shoot out of situations instead of bargaining for a peaceful conclusion.
The roster of police departments outfitting officers with semiautomatic rifles grew rapidly over the following years. The move was given a boost by the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 that allowed the Defense Department to release some of its seven million older M-16 models as well as other surplus material such as cars, body armor, trucks, and radios to local law enforcement agencies at little or no cost. Police agencies paid about fifty dollars each for rifles, but many police departments either could not wait for their turn or wanted civilian versions right off the bat, so they bought rifles on the open market for up to a thousand dollars each.
Some citizen groups feared that the powerful rifles would make the streets more dangerous. Police agencies found themselves explaining why the new rifles would actually be safer than the shotguns they currently carried. Because the rifle rounds were designed to inflict maximum damage on human flesh—the hydrostatic effect of a small mass fired at high velocity—they were less likely than a shotgun to penetrate drywall or cars, or hit innocent bystanders.
Police were routinely issued shotguns, but they were not designed for accuracy, as the pellets contained in the shells spread out rapidly after firing. As such, they could be useful for hitting several close-in subjects at the same time, but their effectiveness dissipated rapidly with distance. Orlando police officer Eric Clapsaddle, who ran the department’s shooting range, found himself defending the police department’s decision to buy 250 civilian-version M-16s. “If you’re not educated on the weapon, people will think it’s a dangerous military assault rifle. In reality, it’s safer in an urban setting with a lot of people.”
Police agencies acknowledged that although incidents of violent crime were remaining somewhat constant in the 1990s, their ferocity was rising. Police were up against better-armed criminals who were not afraid to use their superior firepower. (This was not just an American phenomenon. Police in London began equipping their officers in 2001 with Heckler & Koch G36K assault rifles as confrontations with criminals grew more volatile.) National Park Service law enforcement rangers who patrolled national parks found themselves changing with the times, too. Park officers were issued M-16s in addition to their sidearms, because they often came upon heavily armed drug dealers in remote areas. Far from immediate backup help, sometimes out of radio range, these rangers had to fend for themselves.
Even small-town police agencies without budget power gave their police more firepower. Alexandria (pop. 45,000) and neighboring Pineville, Louisiana (pop. 15,000), for example, allowed officers to carry semiautomatic rifles if they paid for them out of their own pocket. Despite their small-town profile, two Alexandria police officers were shot and killed in 2003 by a man firing an AK.
Large cities gave officers options, too. St. Petersburg, Florida, police began allowing officers to buy their own AR-15s, after police found themselves confiscating increasing numbers of semiautomatic and automatic rifles, mainly AKs.
Against this backdrop of increasing police firepower was the assault rifle ban, which was set to expire on September, 13, 2004. With police agencies ramping up to counter heavily armed criminals, opponents of extending the law said the ramp-up offered proof that the ban was not working as hoped. Criminals were still getting their hands on assault rifles, mainly pre-ban and copycats, and police continued to feel threatened.
Others defended the ban. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence offered statistics showing that crimes involving assault weapons had dropped from a high of 6.15 percent the year before the ban to 2.57 percent in 2001, a 58 percent decrease in eight years. Opponents offered their own statistics, claiming that the overwhelming majority of crimes were perpetrated by handguns and not assault rifles, and any emphasis should be on criminals and not law-abiding citizens.
In the post-9/11 atmosphere, fears of terrorism helped pump up the volume. The Brady Center ran full-page ads in national newspapers stating, “Terrorists of 9-11 Can Hardly Wait For 9-13,” with a picture of Osama bin Laden and his signature Krinkov along with excerpts from an al-Qaeda training manual advising, “In countries like the United States, it’s perfectly legal for members of the public to own certain types of firearms. If you live in such a country, obtain an assault rifle legally, preferably an AK-47 or variations.”
Even supporters admitted that the act had too many loopholes and that a tighter act should be passed. Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said, “For those who fear that if the ban expires there will be a flood of AKs and Uzis on our streets, the sad truth is that we’re already drowning.” The law necessary to truly keep assault rifles off the streets needed to be changed to close all loopholes, he added.
Some state assault rifle bans also were at stake if the federal ban faded away. In Massachusetts, for example, that state’s assault rifle ban was set to expire concurrent with the national law, and supporters there erected a mammoth billboard with a huge AK, the message stating, “Coming to a Home Near You.” The billboard, reported to be the largest in the United States, showed an AK that measured a hundred feet long and thirty feet tall. “We chose it because the AK-47 is a recognizable weapon in the American lexicon,” said John Rosenthal, founder and chairman of Stop Handgun Violence, the group that erected the billboard. “The AK-47 has a sordid history with mass shootings in America,” added Rosenthal, a gun owner and skeet shooter. The billboard itself has become an icon, appearing in movies such as Fever Pitch. Situated as it is next to Boston’s Fenway Park, more than a quarter of a million Massachusetts Turnpike commuters see the billboard every day, now with an even larger AK and new text that reads, “Welcome to Massachusetts. You’re more likely to live here,” a reference to the state’s assault weapons ban.
Without a very recent high-profile shooting, supporters had trouble making a dramatic case. President George W. Bush supported renewal but did not press Congress to act, prompting critics to suggest that he played it both ways. Bush said he would sign the bill if Congress presented it, but chances were slim that would happen. In addition, adept lobbying by the National Rifle Association and others secured the renewal’s demise. The NRA was even able to include an amendment giving gun makers protection from lawsuits. This amendment tainted the act for advocates, who now found it impossible to vote for it.
As the act was about to expire, gun shops did not report any abnormal shopping behavior, no slowdown in anticipation of the end of restrictions, and no indications of pent-up demand. When the law finally expired, there were no reports of consumers lining up to buy rifles. It was business as usual, leading many to believe that the act was not the deterrent they had touted. Anyone, criminal or upstanding citizen, could have gotten all the firepower they wanted during the ten-year ban.
It was also business as usual in some of the country’s roughest areas. On the night before the act’s expiration, a twenty-six-year old Miami-Dade police officer was on routine patrol when she pulled over a white Impala to investigate reports of gunshots in the area. The driver opened the car door, pointed his AK at the officer, and fired more than two dozen rounds. Her patrol car exploded after bullets struck either the gas tank or the fuel line. The officer, a single mother of a young boy, was hit in the shoulder and the forehead. She recovered following several operations for the head wound. The shooter, a thirty-six-year-old man, had been arrested thirteen times in the previous nine years and carried convictions for drug possession, robbery, and possession of firearms by a convicted felon. He has not yet faced trial for the attempted murder of a police officer in addition to gun infractions.
The assault rifle issue also affected the presidential election held two months later. “Today, George Bush made the job of terrorists easier and made the job of America’s law enforcement officers harder, and that’s just plain wrong,” proclaimed presidential candidate John Kerry when the ban expired. Although Kerry won the endorsement of some national police organizations for his stand against assault rifles, many pro-gun groups used his words to portray him as rabidly anti-gun. The NRA mobilized its members to vote against him, reminding them that the senator had voted nine times for the assault rifle ban. One NRA ad even called him “the most anti-gun presidential nominee in history.”
Kerry lost his 2004 bid for president in one of America’s closest and most contentious elections, in large part because of efforts by the NRA and their campaign to allow unfettered purchases of semiautomatic rifles. “This election was crucial for the Second Amendment,” said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. “The NRA stands for freedom, our members are defenders of freedom, and we are proud to see that gun owners across the country came out and voted for freedom.”
AS THE ASSAULT RIFLE ISSUE played out in the United States, the United Nations was also about to tackle the subject. Members of the world body, especially those from Africa, viewed these weapons not just as implements of war but as long-term impediments to economic growth and social progress in their countries. Other UN members saw these military-style rifles, especially the AK, as more of a threat to world peace than the atomic bomb and were determined to do something about it.