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As the country reels after Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn., the question of how assault rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook Elementary School entered the civilian market is front and center.
The semi-automatic weapon found at the site where Adam Lanza shot to death 20 children and six adults, for example, is a variant of a type of gun developed for troops during Vietnam.
"It is one of a variety of assault rifles that militaries of the world developed," Tom Diaz, a policy analyst for the Violence Policy Center, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "when they realized that most soldiers do not, when they're engaged in combat ... take accurate aim, do not fire at long distances, but rather just spray bullets in the general direction of the enemy at short to medium range. ... [S]oldiers are not marksmen, and they tend to just fire in bursts at ambiguous targets and, in fact, most battlefield injuries are the result of just being where the bullet is and not someone actually aiming at you."
Diaz — who is also the author of the forthcoming book The Last Gun, about changes in the gun industry and gun violence — and his colleagues have conducted extensive research on gun violence in the United States and have written reports on assault weapons, as well as on the National Rifle Association and the corporations that fund it. What gun manufacturers have done to rejuvenate their markets, Diaz tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, is to emphasize military-derived semi-automatic guns and, in marketing, "appeal to the inner soldier, the insurrectionist feelings and high-tech desires to market these military-style guns."
The only difference, Diaz says, between the semi-automatic rifles sold on the civilian market and those issued to soldiers "is that the purely military rifle is capable of firing what's called 'fully automatic fire,' " meaning the gun will continue to fire until it expends all of the ammunition in its magazine.
When it comes to potential bills that could be introduced in Congress in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Diaz says it's crucial to focus on this question of magazine capacity. Lawmakers must ask, Diaz says, "What actually are the design features? What are the real functions of assault weapons? ... Can you put a high-capacity magazine into this gun that will hold 20, 40, 60, 100, 110 rounds of ammunition? And, if that's true, then it's an assault rifle and we will not allow their manufacture or import."
On the Bushmaster rifle found at Sandy Hook Elementary
"[It's] a variant of a type of gun called the AR-15 ... which was designed and developed for military use roughly during the Vietnam War period. It is one of a variety of assault rifles that militaries of the world developed when they realized that most soldiers do not — when they're engaged in combat — do not take accurate aim, do not fire at long distances, but rather just spray bullets in the general direction of the enemy at short to medium range. When the military accepted this as a fact — that soldiers are not marksmen, and they tend to just fire in bursts at ambiguous targets, and in fact most battlefield injuries are the result of just being where the bullet is and not someone actually aiming at you — the militaries of the world said, 'OK, we need a type of gun to give our soldiers that will do just that.' ... This was the genesis of the assault rifle. The first one was developed by the Germans in 1944. It was called the StG-44. The Soviet army quickly ... made a design similar to it, which is called the AK-47, probably the most widely used rifle in the world."
On how the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban defined a semi-automatic weapon
"It defined a semi-automatic assault weapon in terms of a gun that had at least two of certain features. One of them was the actual crucial feature, which is the ability to take a high capacity magazine. ... The others were ... almost decorative features that were on these guns, such as a bayonet mount, which means you could put a bayonet on the gun; a thing called a ... flash hider, which means that the flash from the barrel of the gun is less observable; a stock in the rear that could be extended or shortened. ... The requirement that you have at least two of those meant that gun manufactures could say, 'Aha, we can keep the ability to take the high capacity magazine and just knock off the rest of these bells and whistles [and] we still have essentially the same gun, ... but it's now federally legal. And that's what Bushmaster figured out. They actually rose to prominence after the 1994 semi-automatic assault weapons ban because they took off all the truly irrelevant bells and whistles and just produced a basic gun."
On Beretta's marketing strategy for a semi-automatic pistol that entered civilian market
"Prior to the early- to mid-1980s, most handguns in the United States, including those used by law enforcement officers, were the old-fashioned revolver, which had a capacity of about six rounds — relatively cumbersome. In the 1980s, Beretta, an Italian company, decided to compete to replace the U.S. military standard sidearm. Dating back to 1911, there was a gun known as the Colt Model 1911, .45 caliber, semi-automatic pistol, and it was thought to be antiquated, not suitable for the modern battlefield.
"So there was a competition and Beretta actually won the competition for its .9 millimeter, high-capacity semi-automatic pistol. Beretta executives later in interviews on public record which we've documented ... said, 'Look, our strategy was this: ... What we want to do is get the cache of military sales so that we can then turn to the much bigger, much more profitable American civilian market and make a lot more money doing that.' And that's precisely what they did. Beretta's advertising [strategy] to this day ... is, 'This is a gun that we sell to the military. It's made for them but you can use it.' "
On the FN 5.7, a gun designed for counterterrorism purposes that has entered the civilian market
"It was specifically designed for use by counterterrorism teams because it fires a very small but very high-velocity bullet that will penetrate body armor — what people call ballistic vests or bullet-proof vests. When FN first manufactured this gun, they recognized how dangerous it would be on a civilian market and they claimed they would never sell it to civilians, that it would only be for police and counterterrorism units. In fact, it's become a very popular gun on the American civilian market and is exported to Mexico, where it's called the mata policia, or police killer, cop killer."
On why he — himself a former NRA member and gun owner — switched sides on the debate
"When I worked for Congressman [Chuck] Schumer, who was then chairman of the House crime subcommittee — about 1993, 1994 — I inherited the gun legislation account. And one of the things I had to do was generate a hearing on, we called it 'Kids and Guns,' and, in the course of preparing a hearing, staff members such as I was [would] actually go and interview the witnesses. ... I talked to some of these children and I realized that their world had nothing whatever to do with this kind of mythical world of the National Rifle Association, and so that set me to thinking, and ... I realized that I was living, frankly, in a dream world. I mean, I was living in the world of when I was a Boy Scout."