Cocked: Locals react to lifted gun ban

Charlottesville. Bastion of liberty, cradle of history, and now... hotbed of assault weapons? With the September 13 expiration of the 1994 federal Assault Weapons Ban, some area gun dealers are ready to give the public what it wants.

"We'll have to," says Harvey Stone, manager of Woodbrook Sports and Pro Shop on Route 29N. "There's so much demand."

Other gun store owners question why the lifting of the ban has created panic, noting that even under the so-called ban, many assault weapons have always been legal.

Ross Tierney, president of sporting shop Mountain River Outdoors, says the ban prevented only the manufacture of certain gun models and a variety of accessories, not the sale of older models. Buying and selling such weapons built before 1994 has always been legal– if expensive. As supply shrank under the ban, Tierney explains, the cost of the weapons and their "accessories"– things like grenade launchers, bayonet mounts, and upgraded magazine capacity– spiked.

It's the accessories– and their new accessibility– that are causing much of the fear among police and civilians.

"The high capacity of the magazine is the crucial component of that ban," says Albemarle Police Chief John Miller. "To have somebody there with 30 rounds... for law enforcement it's unreasonable," he says.

Miller cites the terrifying 1997 California incident in which two bank robbers protected by heavy body armor and toting a trunk of assault weapons– including hundred-round "drums"– held off hundreds of Los Angeles police officers for several hours. The officers were so out-gunned that they had to hustle to a gun store, mid-battle, for heavier fire-power. Five officers were injured, and although both suspects were eventually killed, the incident left a mark on law enforcement memory.

"I doubt there's a police chief in this country who wouldn't want to see that ban reinstated," says Miller, who fears the occurrence of another such situation.

And while Miller doubts that lifting the ban will affect the overall crime rate, he does believe it will increase the "deadliness" of certain crimes.

Now, Miller says, his department and others across the country are considering arming some officers with automatic weapons just in case. But the cost of putting ├╝ber-armed officers on the street– in both materials and training– requires further consideration, says Miller.

Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo did not return The Hook's calls by press time.

Police aren't the only ones worried about the proliferation of large-caliber guns in low-life hands.

Area author Beverly Van Hook says she is tormented by the lifting of the ban. "I'm a writer, a grandmother, an American," says Van Hook. "It just grieves me when you see what these weapons have done, and then to have them easily accessible."

But Woodbrook's Stone says the ban was too flimsy to matter.

"It didn't stop any crime or anything like that," says Stone. "There's never been an arrest made because of that ban."

Though large retailers Wal-Mart and K-Mart have issued statements affirming vowing not to carry assault weapons, Stone says the weapons deserve a sporting chance.

"Most of the time," he insists, "they're used in competition and stuff of that nature."

Tierney agrees, noting that AK-47s will soon come "factory standard" with a 15-round magazine instead of a 10-round.

"It's a whole lot more convenient for people who are target shooting," he says.

Chief Miller fears it could be more convenient for targeting his colleagues.

Miller cites terrorists' well-documented plans to buy such weapons on American soil– and the tragedy at Columbine– as examples of such weapons getting into the wrong hands.

And while the NRA continues to cite the Second Amendment as the unassailable basis for law-abiding citizens' right to arm themselves however they see fit, for Van Hook, reinstating the ban seems like the only possible action.

"In these times when we have so many frightening things," she says, "we don't need an additional worry."

Assault weapons and accessories will be available at Woodbrook Sports and Pro Shop.

Assault weapons, says Chief Miller, "have no place in any community."