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SALT LAKE CITY — A number of recent shootings across the country is escalating the debate over guns and the availability of so-called "assault weapons." As some call for more control, others point to a system that is functioning well with countermeasures already in place to deter wrongful use of firearms.
Simple techniques such as "qualifying questions" at gun stores and a Utah law that requires an affirmative response on a background check before a gun is transferred are among the lesser-known factors that add to gun safety, advocates say.
Walk into a gun shop and it's not uncommon to hear a clerk ask questions like, "What kind of gun are you looking for and what are you looking to do with it?" They seem like friendly questions, but they're also often used to gauge a potential buyer's demeanor and detect anything out of the ordinary.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent Brad Beyersdorf said qualifying questions are part of a practice the ATF encourages, and the bureau supports stores when they turn away suspect gun sales.
"If for any reason they feel uncomfortable, we encourage them to use their best judgment," Beyersdorf said.
At Doug's Shoot N' Sports in Taylorsville, manager Dave Larsen said he puts no pressure on workers to make sales.
"Working at a gun store you learn to watch your customers pretty well, and it's not necessarily because you don't trust them — because I think we have the best customers around," Larsen said. "There are still people that come in from time to time who cause you a little bit of concern."
Larsen said some of the concerns include people smelling of alcohol or marijuana or those acting erratically.
"I've always taught my team that if you don't want to sell a gun for any reason at all, (it's) not a problem. Just don't help them make a decision," Larsen said. "If somebody doesn't decide what kind of gun to buy, they're not going to buy a gun."
"If they ultimately decide that they want one," Larsen continued, "you can politely turn them down and just say no."
Black rifles 101
Call a semi-automatic AR15 an "assault rifle" at a gun shop, and almost without fail someone will correct you. Gun rights activists accuse their gun control counterparts of purposely confusing the terms that describe guns that look "scarier" than their hunting counterparts.
"There is no difference between the type of action in a semi-automatic AR15 as to a semi-automatic hunting rifle," said Clark Aposhian, gun instructor and chair of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Sporting rifles fire one shot per one trigger pull, Aposhian said, as he displayed and explained several of his own guns. Automatic weapons, including machine guns, fire until a trigger is released or until a magazine is emptied, he said.
A true assault weapon, Aposhian explained, is a selective-fire weapon with a detachable magazine that can fire in either automatic or semiautomatic mode with the flip of a selector switch.
Additions to semi-automatic guns that make them appear more like their military counterparts include bayonet mounts, pistol grips, flash suppressors — which reduces the light emitted from a barrel — and muzzle brakes, which reduce recoil.
The facts about purchases
Black rifles are as easily purchased as basic handguns. Larsen walked KSL through the typical steps of a gun purchase.
Once a gun is selected, Larsen said a buyer must complete a federal transfer form and a background check. If the background check comes back in the clear, the sale is completed within minutes.
Aposhian said Utah requires an affirmative response on the background check to complete a gun sale. A number of other states, he said, allow gun sales to go through if no response has been returned within five days.
There is little to no motivation, Aposhian said, for gun shops to make illegal gun sales. A single bad gun sale or bad paperwork can cost a business its license, and shops typically only see a 10 percent margin out of their gun sales.
Gun control advocates call for change
Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah board member Gary Sackett maintains semi-automatic black rifles that resemble military assault rifles should not be for public consumption.
"There's no reason they should be available to the ordinary citizen except in extraordinary circumstances," Sackett said. "They're appropriate for military, they're appropriate for law enforcement, (but) there's no need for you and me to have them."
Sackett added that the weapons under current law are available without background checks.
Aposhian acknowledged common handguns and sporting rifles can be privately sold without documentation, though he recommends people protect themselves in those circumstances by creating their own paperwork.
If the buyer eventually commits a crime with the gun, Aposhian said, the paperwork may come in handy to show when you sold the weapon.
The availability of gun accessories are also a concern, Sackett suggested, including large gun magazines — which he termed as "anti-personnel."
"There's no reason a self-defense firearm needs more than six or eight rounds," Sackett said. "Clearly we won't eliminate the kinds of things that have happened recently in the Sikh Temple and in Aurora, Colo., but certainly we as a society can do things to reduce that kind of tragedy," Sackett said.
Legally owned, fully automatic guns
The sale of automatic guns is tightly monitored by the ATF and local law enforcement.
Automatic weapons that are legal to own are essentially guns grandfathered into the current system and were manufactured prior to 1986.
As a result of current laws and the finite pool of available "full-auto" guns, prices commonly soar into the tens of thousands of dollars.
"Those require a special tax stamp and special registration through the federal government," Aposhian said.
Local police departments have to review and sign off on each sale.
Unified police range master Nick Roberts said he reviews sales on behalf of Sheriff Jim Winder, and he conducts his own background check in addition to the standard background check run through Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification.
Because of the process, a gun transfer currently takes anywhere from six to nine months.
While the ATF tracks the sales and knows where the legally owned automatic weapons are supposed to be, Beyersdorf declined to divulge how many guns were currently in the state of Utah on the grounds that even the raw stat constituted "tax information."
What if: Guns modified to go 'full-auto'
Beyersdorf said the ATF from time to time uncovers semi-automatic weapons that have been illegally modified to fire automatically, but the bureau does not consider the phenomenon to be a "significant" issue.
Roberts said he can only remember one seizure ever for the Unified police that turned up a modified weapon. He said within the past year officers uncovered a Glock that someone had spent a lot of time trying to modify to fire automatically.
Successfully and safely converting a semi-automatic gun to full-auto is very difficult to do and requires advanced knowledge and likely a machine shop, said gunsmith Steve Palano.
Palano is a production manager for Bravo 18, which manufactures guns for law enforcement and military use. "It takes a little more than turning off the sear or messing with the disconnect," he said.
Palano estimated there were perhaps a handful of people in the state with the know-how and capabilities to safely convert weapons to full-auto. Others, he acknowledged, might have enough knowledge to "get themselves in trouble."
In addition to it being a federal felony for most people to convert a weapon on their own to full-auto, Palano said the added risks are significant.
"Reliability generally is a huge problem, at the low end. And at the high end, yeah, the gun can explode," Palano said.