John Parkin bought an AR-15-style rifle for his wife in 2016. The couple live on a remote 150-acre ranch in Northern California, and Parkin, who owns gun shops in Burlingame and Lower Lake (Lake County), is often away on business.
"She needs to have something that could equal what a bad guy could have," he said.
Steve Sposato has spent almost three decades fighting for that type of rifle and similar guns to be banned. In 1993, a man killed his wife, Jody, with a military-style firearm in a San Francisco office building, in one of the nation's first modern mass shootings.
The Lafayette resident cannot fathom why someone might need such a weapon for hunting, recreation or especially self-defense.
"The design of the gun is to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time," he said. "Who the hell are you expecting to knock at your front door?"
These opposing views of firearms defined by California as assault weapons — banned for sale in the state for the past three decades with mixed results, and loopholes exploited by gunmakers — show the chasm over gun laws in America at one of its widest points.
Among the most popular of these are AR-15-style rifles, which have gained a loyal following of homeowners, hobbyists and hunters who largely reject the idea that they're weapons of war. Intended to be the civilian, semiautomatic version of the military's M-16, the AR-15 and similar models are light, easy to shoot with little recoil, and powerful.
On the other side are many who see AR-15-type rifles and other assault weapons as guns of choice for mass killers, with no legitimate civilian use. The same qualities that make them popular, they say, render them extraordinarily dangerous in the wrong hands.
Many of the nation's most deadly mass shootings involved such weapons — including the massacres in Las Vegas (61 killed), the Pulse nightclub (49 killed), Newtown (28 killed) and Parkland (17 killed).
Gun advocates counter that most murders involve handguns. Of 822 California killings in 2019 in which the type of gun was determined, 762 involved handguns, 34 were committed with rifles and 26 were committed with shotguns, according to the FBI.
The controversial guns gained attention again this month after a California federal judge overturned the state's 32-year-old ban on the sale of assault weapons. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who has struck down a number of California's gun restrictions, went so far as to compare the AR-15-style rifle to a Swiss Army knife.
His words infuriated gun control proponents — including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called those comments a "disgusting slap in the face" to gun violence victims — and thrilled firearm advocates. The state attorney general appealed the judge's ruling and the case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the overturning of the ban, California is poised to again be at the center of the gun debate — a state with an alarming amount of gun crime and a reputation for relatively strict laws, but one where sales figures reveal a huge appetite for firearms.
Business was brisk Tuesday at Parkin's Coyote Point Armory in Burlingame. Last year, an estimated 1.26 million guns were bought in California, a 56% increase from the year before and the most since at least 2000.
The gun data, from the journalism nonprofit the Trace, show sales continue to peak this year. There were spikes at the start of the pandemic, the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and near the U.S. presidential election.
Judge Benitez wrote that more than 185,000 guns now defined as California assault weapons are registered in the state, meaning they were bought before the sales ban and grandfathered in.
At Coyote Point, customers waited in line to discuss handgun options, and one man hauled in a metal ammunition case to fill. The phone rang repeatedly.
"Honestly, to a lot of people, owning a gun is a lot like golf," Parkin said as he showed off his wife's AR-15-style rifle, which avoids California's ban by being "featureless," lacking extra grips and other popular add-ons. It's a hobby, he said, and his customers buy new guns, just like golfers buy clubs, as technology improves.
Parkin grew up hunting deer. The fourth-generation Californian has watched California institute gun restrictions that, he says, do nothing.
"If I could personally stop all the shootings, I would," he said. "But limiting what we can buy is not helping anything."
In 1989, the state enacted the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, the oldest of its kind in the country. In January of that year, a man had shot up a Stockton schoolyard with dozens of rounds from a semiautomatic rifle, killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher.
The law initially banned the sale of more than 50 models of semiautomatic rifles and pistols. A semiautomatic gun is one that automatically loads the next round of ammunition, but requires a pull of the trigger for each shot.
Legislators could add models to the banned list as they came to their attention, but gun manufacturers continually circumvented the law by changing the names of models. Later, certain characteristics of weapons were prohibited.
Under the revised ban, semiautomatic rifles with fixed ammunition magazines — bullet chambers that require disassembly of the firearm to swap them out — can't hold more than 10 rounds. Those with detachable magazines, which enable swift reloading, can't have any of a number of features that give them added functions or make them easier to handle, such as forward grips, folding stocks that make them easier to transport, and flash suppressors that lessen muzzle blasts.
The ban has survived earlier court challenges, often by the National Rifle Association and its gun advocacy affiliates. The group has spent heavily on political campaigns, and one of the original authors of the assault weapons ban found himself the subject of a recall in 1994 by the gun lobby.
All the while, gunmakers continue to develop firearms that look and feel like AR-15-style rifles but are legal because they've been customized to make them "California compliant."
Many California gun owners find the required modifications detract from the appeal of the weapon — though not necessarily enough to deter them from buying.
Parkin sells a Juggernaut JT-9 9mm rifle with an adjustable stock and pistol grip in his store for $1,199.99. The gun is legal despite those characteristics because it has a magazine lock, slowing down reloading.
His wife's gray and camouflage Falkor AR-15-style rifle is legal in California because of modifications to the stock, grip and muzzle.
"A lot of women are buying AR-15s because they're lighter and easier to shoot," he said. "Tons of people hunt with ARs."
To Parkin, the divide between the two sides has never been greater.
"One side advocates owning guns as originally promised by the Founders," he said. "Then you have people that just don't like guns, who don't want anyone to have them period."
Jody Sposato, 30, was taking a deposition in a San Francisco conference room at 101 California St. on July 1, 1993, when a disgruntled gunman carrying military-style guns, Gian Luigi Ferri, shot her five times in the back.
His two TEC-DC9s were modifications from the TEC-9, with the manufacturer choosing "DC" because it avoided the District of Columbia's gun restrictions. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would use those guns in Colorado's Columbine High School massacre six years later.
Sposato's daughter, Meghan, had just learned to walk at 10 months, old enough to drop a handful of dirt on her mother's grave.
Later that year, Sposato strapped his daughter in an infant backpack and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, addressing then-Sen. Joe Biden and helping pass, in 1994, the first federal assault weapons ban, which would expire in 2004.
"Today, you're looking at what's left of my family," Sposato told the committee, his daughter teething on a toy and audience members dabbing their eyes. "Can any of you advise me how to tell a 10-month-old Mommy's died? Perhaps the manufacturer of the Intratec TEC-DC9 should publish this information with an instruction manual for its murderous weapon."
He would continue to help Gov. Gray Davis modify California's ban, but he was not naive.
"The problem with these bans is if you name any weapon, the manufacturers just change the name of the weapon," Sposato, now 64, said in a recent interview in his backyard. "They circumvent the intent of the law and basically give you the finger. There are no morals or ethics in the gun industry. None."
Whereas Parkin felt justified in Judge Benitez's recent ruling, Sposato was disgusted.
"This judge is not tethered to reality. What f—ing planet is he from?" Sposato said. "I'm angry. He is clueless on the impact on people's lives."
Sposato owns guns. His deceased wife grew up poor in Maine, where her family hunted to put food on the table.
"I get that," he said. "It's a way of life."
But when the judge compared the AR-15-style rifle to a Swiss Army knife, "good for both home and battle," Sposato felt like he was back sitting before senators in 1993.
"How many deaths does it take? What's the number?" he said. "How many will it take to matter?"
The online gun forums lit up June 5, shortly after Benitez's ruling.
"There truly is no intellectually honest interpretation of the 2A that would allow the ban of any semi-automatic firearm that fires bullets of a size and shape that have been around since the ink dried on the Bill of Rights," one commenter wrote.
Another warned: "This will increase pressure by the Marxists to pack the Supreme Court. Still obviously the right call."
In his ruling, Benitez illustrated the prevalence of guns in his state.
Of the more than 350,000 rifles bought by Californians since Jan. 1, 2020, "some fraction" were likely stripped-down, featureless legal versions of AR-15s and the like, Benitez wrote. The state doesn't specifically track what types of legal rifles are purchased.
"One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles," he wrote. "The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter."
While most gun-related deaths nationwide are linked to handguns, firearms like those banned under California's assault weapons law were used in the seven deadliest mass shootings of the past decade. You can kill more people with them, said Robyn Thomas, executive director of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"Will regulating assault rifles end our gun violence epidemic?" she asked. "No it won't — no single law will. Does that mean we should cease to take any action whatsoever and let the gun lobby continue its profit-driven perversion of what it means to be a gun owner and an American citizen? Absolutely not."
Citing a Harvard University analysis showing people defended themselves with a gun in less than 1% of crimes from 2007 to 2011, she said the NRA and the pro-gun lobby had "fetishized assault weapons among their base, sowing fear of immigrants and Black Americans and then convincing the gun owners they radicalized that they can't possibly defend their homes from these imaginary threats without weapons of war."
Last month, a disgruntled transit worker walked into a San Jose maintenance yard and shot and killed nine co-workers before turning a gun on himself. Parkin said this was proof that the assault weapons ban does not stop mass shootings. He blamed the shooter, who carried three fully legal semiautomatic handguns, and his mental health issues.
To Sposato, the current threat to California's assault weapons ban is more evidence that his legislative wins in honor of his late wife have been almost entirely erased. But, he said, he thinks of the lives saved by the federal and state bans and has no regrets — and no plans to rest.
"The fight will continue," he said, "and I'm in it for the long haul."
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