They can kill from more than four football fields away, shred police officers' vests, fire up to 75 bullets at a time - and they're increasingly showing up in criminals' hands.
Last year, Fort Wayne Police seized 31 semiautomatic rifles, compared with two in 2003, the last year of the federal assault weapons ban that limited the sale of the rifles. The seizure increase and more reports of criminals using the rifles concerns Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York.
“The fact that we have these relatively cheap, assault weapon-type firearms out there, it's not only a hazard to the public, but in particular to police officers,” said York, who supports renewing the ban. “It's proof that they continue to get into the hands of irresponsible people.”
Just how many are in the hands of irresponsible people in Fort Wayne is difficult to measure. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not provide gun-seizure information from its Fort Wayne office despite Freedom of Information requests made by The News-Sentinel in June 2008 and last month.
But York said it's no longer rare for officers to hear shots from semiautomatic rifles ring out in the city, and police around the nation say more are being used in shootings. Some 57 people died in eight mass shootings in the U.S. in March and early last month, according to the Associated Press, and at least three of the incidents involved semiautomatic rifles.
• On March 11, Michael McClendon killed 10 people in and around Samson, Ala., before fatally shooting himself.
• On March 21, Lovelle Mixon killed four Oakland police officers before being killed by police.
• On April 4, Richard Popalawski killed three Pittsburgh police officers before being killed by police.
“Assault Weapons: Mass Produced Mayhem,” a report released in October by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, lists more than 200 shootings involving assault weapons since the lifting of the ban. They include a 2006 robbery in which a family of seven was killed in Indianapolis.
Center President Paul Helmke said the violence illustrates the weakness of gun laws. He noted that individual and gun-show purchases of semiautomatic rifles don't require criminal background checks. And because law-abiding citizens can buy an unlimited number of the rifles at gun stores, Helmke said straw purchases - guns bought for criminals by people with clean records - have increased.
“Anyone can go in and buy an unlimited number, so we're starting to see a lot more used,” said Helmke, mayor of Fort Wayne from 1988 to 2000. “They fire so many rounds so quickly. You can get off close to 50 rounds in 30 seconds … Do we really want to make it easier and easier to kill people?”
While Helmke and York would like to see the ban reinstituted, it appears unlikely anytime soon. Despite voicing support for the ban during his February confirmation testimony, Attorney General Eric Holder backed off that stance in an April 8 interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric. Holder said he would only push for things that are “politically saleable.”
“The president and I both believe that the Second Amendment is something that has to be respected,” Holder said. “We have to use common-sense approaches to keeping the American people safe.”
Holder said he would work with the National Rifle Association, which opposes the ban.
“There's a realization that the most effective way of reducing violent crime in this country is to enforce existing laws,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
Despite some of the perpetrators of mass killings - like McClendon and Popalawski - reportedly purchasing their semiautomatic rifles legally before their rampages, Arulanandam said most crimes are committed with illegally obtained rifles.
While Arulanandam said there is no political will to reinstate the ban, fear of crime and of a reinstitution has semiautomatic rifles flying off the shelves locally and nationally. Ammunition for all types of guns has become increasingly scarce.
Helmke noted more sales increase the chances of legally bought semiautomatic rifles being stolen by criminals or obtained in straw purchases or from unscrupulous gun dealers.
“A dedicated bad guy is probably always going to be able to get a gun, but why do we have to make it easier for them?” he asked.
Helmke hopes the recent mass murders will spur lawmakers to reinstate the ban, but count out U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd District. Souder refused to be interviewed for this story, but in an e-mail from spokeswoman Mindi Wood, he condemned the ban.
“It has been proven ineffective,” Souder said. “It takes away rights with no proven benefit.”
York is baffled by that attitude, saying semiautomatic rifles aren't needed for hunting or self-defense.
“It's a weapon of war, not of sport,” York said. “I'm sure it will be a political battle, but the officers are out in the street fighting that battle every day.”