An assault weapon being fired. President Obama has called for a renewal of the assault weapons ban.
Aug. 13, 2012 --
The shooting deaths of three people near Texas A&M University today, making this the third major act of gun violence in the United States within the past 30 days, is bound to reignite a debate about gun control. The country was still reeling from the deadly tragedy at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which left 12 people dead, and another act of domestic terrorism at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, leaving seven dead including the shooter. Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas aren't the only states to have their gun laws come under scrutiny following a shooting tragedy. Other states with even more lax laws have also drawn fire.
The killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student who was unarmed at the time, stirred controversy over the application of justice in the shooting. Florida's gun ownership laws came under scrutiny. George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old shooter and self-described neighborhood watch captain, had a concealed carry permit, easily obtained in the state. Florida also has laws in place the protect the use of firearms. A 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law allows the use of deadly force if there's the reasonable expectation of a threat, even if the supposed attacker is unarmed.
Following a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. on Jan. 8, 2011 that left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded and resulted in the deaths of six people, Arizona's gun laws, considered among the nation's most lenient, drew widespread media attention. The state of Arizona allows anyone over age 21 to not only own a firearm, but also conceal a handgun without needing a permit. In fact, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill in January 2010 repealing a law requiring concealed-carry permits, according to NPR. Twice already this year, Arizona state lawmakers have considered two bills loosening gun ownership restrictions. One bill brought before the Arizona Senate would have allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on university campuses, a measure that stalled because of the controversy that ensued from the idea of allowing guns in schools. A second bill drafted in the Arizona House would allow gun owners to carry in public buildings, and is "quietly moving toward passage," according to the Arizona Republic. This photo shows ammunition being sold at the Pima County gun show in 2011 one week after the shooting in Tuscon.
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Nearly five years ago, 32 people at Virginia Tech were killed when a mentally ill student went a on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself. Virginia's laws are similar to restrictions imposed by other states on gun ownership. The state requires permits for concealed carry, which is subject to a review process. The state also has a 22-year-old law requiring criminal background checks on gun sales -- a law which the current governor, Bob McDonnell, says he's evaluating in a January interview with the Virginian Pilot. The state, however, does have what gun control advocates call a major loophole: private dealers may sell firearms at gun shows without a background check. Without a background check, according to gun control proponents, criminals have ready access to weapons at gun shows. In 2011, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman even encouraged potential terrorists in a video statement to take advantage of similar loopholes in the United States. In this photo, mourners hold a vigil following the Virginia Tech massacre.
Mississippi not only has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state; it also has the second-highest number of firearm-related fatalities per 100,000 people. A new law passed in Mississippi in December 2011 allows residents to carry guns in public places, including "bars, courthouses and college campuses," according to a UPI report. Mississippi also has highest "export rates" of any state, that is the number of guns sold in Mississippi to criminals who use them in another, according to a study led by a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Mississippi might have the second-highest rate of gun-related fatalities, but Alaska leads the list -- and also has even more lax gun laws than Mississippi. Nearly 21 people in 100,000 die as a result of a firearm in Alaska. Like Arizona, Alaska law allows for anyone over 21 to purchase a firearm. The state also permits concealed and open carry. There are some restrictions in Alaska, however. While Arizona is currently considering a law allowing guns in public buildings, carrying weapons in these areas is prohibited by Alaska laws. Private business owners also are allowed to use their discretion as to whether they allow firearms in their establishments.
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Like its neighbor Arizona, New Mexico's lax gun ownership laws make it a prime location for buying guns for the purpose of interstate arms trafficking. New Mexico doesn't require permits for purchase, possession or open carry. Concealed carry permits require the completion of a gun safety course. Weapons used by drug cartels in Mexico often originate in the United States due to the ease with which criminals can buy guns and smuggle them across the border, as reported by CNN. These firearms are usually purchased in border states, like New Mexico.
Montana has limited restrictions on gun ownership, requiring permits only for concealed carry. In 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act (PDF), a bill that challenged federal authority of the state to regulate guns made and sold in Montana. The move proved controversial, and the bill has been tied up in the court system.
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No weapon has more clearly illustrated the debate over gun control than the semi-automatic assault rifle.
The weapon has been used in many mass shootings, yet is also one of the nation's most popular among gun owners with estimates of three to four million in private hands throughout the United States.
President Obama today urged Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that restricts military-style guns and ammunition, beefs up background checks and increases funds for mental health and school safety. Obama also signed 23 executive actions including more federal scientific research on gun violence and a modernized federal database system to track guns, criminals and the mentally ill.
"The type of assault weapon used in Aurora, (Colorado) is to pump out as many bullets as possible as quickly as possible, to do as much damage as possible," Obama said during a noon presentation at the White House. "That allowed the gunman in Aurora to shoot 70 people, killing 12. Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater."
A military-style assault rifle was also used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in December.
Surveys show that more than half of all Americans say the Newtown shooting incident have made them more supportive of gun control. At the same time, 58 percent support a ban on assault weapons, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday.
While there is likely to be broad agreement in Congress to close gun show loopholes and tighten background checks, the idea of restricting the sale of assault weapons faces an uphill battle from gun rights advocates.
"It's not so much the kind of weapon as who has it," said William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO).
NAPO supported the initial assault weapons ban from 1994 until it expired in 2004, but has dropped its support in recent years.
"There has not been a demand from our rank and file that we need to do something about this," said Johnson, whose group represents various state and local police agencies on Capitol Hill.
The group also has opposed limiting the size of ammunition clips, something that is being proposed by President Obama, except armor-piercing or Teflon-coated bullets.
Some gun right advocates say that any proposed ban judges the weapon by its appearance rather than its capabilities.
"If you want to ban all semiautomatic firearms, you could talk about it," said David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute in Denver. "But if you ban some semi-automatic weapons and not others then the ban is based on superficial accessories like a grip. That has nothing to do with public safety."
The administration's ban covers more than 100 specifically-named firearms as well as certain semi-automatic rifles, handguns and shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine, or rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds. Existing weapons are grandfathered, as well as 900 types of weapons used for hunting and sporting purposes.
Kopel says owners of the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles like it for sport shooting at a range, or to protect themselves from intruders.
"The reason it's popular, is not because there are 4 million psychopaths across America, but they are popular for legitimate purposes," Kopel said.
He said the AR-15 is a frequent choice for police to carry in patrol cars. "It's often the best choice for lawful defense of self and others."
Kopel and others also say any ban violates Second Amendment constitutional guarantees to "keep and bear arms."
While the Supreme Court did strike down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia in 2008, it left open the question of what kind of weapons, and owners, could be restricted under state or federal law.
Another obstacle for gun reform is the culture of gun ownership in America, which often follows an urban-rural divide that parallels the split between politically red and blue states. President Obama noted Wednesday that his proposals need support from both sides of the country.
"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Obama said. "That doesn't just mean from certain parts of the country. We're going to need voices in those areas and Congressional districts where gun ownership is strong to speak up. It's not going to just be the usual suspects."