─ Darrell Golden likes assault weapons so much he not only sells them at his Greer store, he also owns one.
As rifles go, the owner of the South Carolina Gun Company said, the AR-15-style guns are lightweight, offer little recoil and are economical to shoot.
But he also acknowledges the popular rifles are the source of controversy in the wake of two mass shootings, the most recent of which involved a man and his wife who went on a murderous rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., using AR-15-style rifles to kill 14 and wound 21.
“Everybody is scared,” Golden said. “I don’t know what’s going on with our country and the people in power. We could come up with a miracle cure and say guns are going to be banned and the reality of the situation is there is no way to enforce that. God himself would have to ban guns for guns to be banned.”
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Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat, is not willing to wait that long.
He has pre-filed a bill that would ban some types of assault weapons in South Carolina.
“My position is pretty simple,” he said. “We ought not to have military weaponry on the streets.”
The issue is not a new one.
Congress itself waded into the controversy in 1994, banning what it then labeled as assault weapons, defining them as semi-automatic rifles with detachable ammunition magazines and other military-like features.
But the law expired in 2004 and Congress did not renew it. Seven states and some cities have since passed their own bans, one of which the U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to take up on appeal, despite the objections of two justices.
According to The Washington Post, “Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia wrote that the court should review the ban because it ‘flouts’ the court’s Second Amendment jurisprudence. They criticized lower court decisions that have allowed jurisdictions to impose what Thomas called ‘categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes.’ ”
Advocates of the guns say the rifles are misunderstood by many politicians, including President Barack Obama, who told the nation Sunday night, “We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.”
Those who sell the guns say they may look scary but the AR-15-style rifles are not combat weapons.
“A guy could do more with a sniper gun who knows what he’s doing than with these guns,” said Dexter Gale, a salesman at Freedom Gun in Greenville. “I don’t think that gun with a little bullet is more dangerous than anything else.”
For one thing, they note, the AR-15 rifles sold in gun stores are not automatic like their military cousins, what are labeled as assault rifles. Semi-automatic weapons require shooters to pull the trigger for each shot.
They also are less powerful than many hunting rifles, those who sell them say, and use smaller caliber bullets.
And while they’ve been used in two recent mass shootings that have drawn national attention, handguns remain the weapon used in the vast majority of murders.
Richard Shumate, manager of Trader’s Guns and Mercantile in Greenville, said customers use the rifles mostly for home defense.
“It is a sporting rifle,” he said. “There are long-distance matches held and competitive matches that entail the use of the AR-15.”
The AR-15-style rifles sold in gun stores across the nation, he said, look like the military’s M-16 but are not automatic.
“It’s like the great big fellow who is 6-foot-6 who weighs 300 pounds,” he said. “He’s labeled a bully but he may be the nicest, kindest guy in the whole place. Because of the way he looks, he’s branded. The same thing is true with these rifles.”
Shumate said his customers like them because they are lightweight, look like the military rifle and are easy to handle. They also can carry from between 5 to 30 rounds of ammunition, he said.
“In a self-defense situation you have a lot of firepower,” he said. “And in a terrorist situation, if the terrorists have a multi-shot, high-capacity rifle, I think an individual citizen should have the right to own something to defend himself with.”
Golden said some people buy the assault weapons “because they can.”
“It’s something to go shoot at the range,” he said. “Some people buy them for self-defense.”
He said he served in the military and knows how to shoot assault rifles and how to take them apart.
He said if such guns were banned, he wonders if taxpayers would pay for his inventory.
“Who’s going to reimburse me for what I have spent my life building up?” he asked.
Kimpson’s bill would ban the sale, transfer or possession of assault weapons, which it defines as “semi-automatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that are designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use.”
Weapons used for hunting or sport would be allowed, according to the bill, which would exempt the military, law enforcement agencies, correctional agencies and federal agencies from the ban, as well as firearms manufacturers.
“I just believe that military artillery shouldn’t be on our streets,” Kimpson said.
Kimpson, however, acknowledges he has an uphill battle to pass the bill and even a newly formed gun violence awareness group in the state which is embracing Kimpson’s bill on gun background checks is not taking sides on the assault weapons ban issue.
“Our big focus is closing loopholes on background checks,” said Meghan Trezies, president of Gun Sense SC. “We’re not focused at all on the assault weapons. At this point our legislative team hasn’t decided how we’re going to respond to him pre-filing that bill.”
Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg County Republican whose campaign for the U.S. Senate last year gave away an AR-15-type rifle, defended the weapons and said he would fight Kimpson’s bill.
“People want the best mode of self defense,” he said in explaining why the guns are so popular. “When it comes right down to it, if you can afford one, that’s an incredible mode of self defense.”
Bright said he does not own such a rifle now but hopes to eventually and recommends anyone who can afford the guns to buy one.
“As the federal government continues to do a terrible job of keeping folks out of the country who choose to do us harm, I would think as a citizen of South Carolina you would want to defend yourself in the best way possible,” he said. “Obviously, a high-magazine weapon gives you more shots at someone who is trying to do you harm. That’s their right and I will support it as long as I’m in the South Carolina Senate.”