St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon is right when he says that AR-15 semiautomatic rifles "don't belong on any city street in America." So why are they so easily available? Maybe because they are legal.
These military-style assault weapons are the kind that police say killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton after more than 50 bullets pierced her Bartlett Park home early Sunday. These guns have no practical use for hunting, but they are highly efficient tools to dispatch enemies of a rival gang, which is apparently why Whitehead-Hamilton's home was targeted. The semiautomatic AR-15 is considered the hot weapon of choice for intimidation, murder and mayhem by drug gangs.
Drug gangs use them. Legitimate hunters don't. So why are they legal?
Ask members of Congress — if you can find them while they are cowering from the National Rifle Association.
AR-15 rifles and similar semiautomatic assault weapons should be illegal. They were as recently as five years ago. Federal law barred the manufacture and sale of these assault weapons along with 18 other types and magazines holding more than 10 cartridges. In 2004, the 10-year-old ban automatically expired and Congress failed to re-enact it.
The blame back then was on the Republican-controlled Congress and President George W. Bush. Lawmakers refused to advance an extension of the ban and Bush, who claimed to be willing to sign it, never urged Congress to enact one. Now also blame the Democrats, many of whom have worked to appease the NRA. Their strategy has been only marginally successful; gun shops report an increase in sales as conservative broadcasters spout baseless claims that President Barack Obama wants to take away all legally owned guns.
As a candidate, Obama said he would seek to renew the ban on assault weapons. New Attorney General Eric Holder has repeated that promise. In the meantime, more of these guns flood into marketplace. Some are flowing across the border into Mexico, assisting in the militarization of the drug cartels. Some are sold legally through gun shops or at gun shows where purchasers don't necessarily undergo background checks. And some are finding their way into the hands of U.S. drug dealers and gangs after they are stolen from homes and pawn shops.
It's true that the 10-year ban didn't eliminate the scourge of semiautomatic weapons. Manufacturers got around it by making small design modifications or incorporating pre-ban materials into their weapons. But the newer legislative versions of the ban would address some of these tricks.
Federal officials are tracing the histories of the AR-15s police say were aimed at Paris' home. Gun advocates argue it is not the gun but the person who fires it that is the issue. And there remain legitimate questions about whether police could have known about these gun stashes in the Bartlett Park neighborhood sooner and moved more aggressively to enforce the laws on these streets before an 8-year-old was killed. But one thing is clear: Without these semiautomatic rifles, far fewer bullets would have been fired into that house on Preston Avenue S last Sunday morning. And a little girl would have had a better chance of staying alive.