Remember: That rifle wasn't made to kill people

October 29, 2002|By Michael Olesker

THE FOLKS at the gun shop tell me that, yes, this Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle I'm holding is pretty much like the one used to shoot 13 people in the recent sniper unpleasantness. The last word, unpleasantness, is used diplomatically. If we're talking about weapons, it upsets the National Rifle Association types so much when we point out that people occasionally use the damned things to slaughter people.

The Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, say the nice folks at White Marsh Arms in Reisterstown, is certainly not intended to shoot people. True, sometimes it unfortunately works out that way. And, true, once a gun leaves a store, there's no telling how in the world it might be used. And, true, there's no foolproof way to be certain they're not selling the thing to some psychopath.

But, heavens, that's not the weapon's true intention.

No, this rifle's not for killing humans. It's for target practice, explains one of the certified NRA instructors working the White Marsh Arms sales counter over the weekend. Or maybe, the guy says, you might use it for taking out a squirrel or a raccoon.

But, to kill 10 people?

To wound three more, including a 13-year old on his way to school?

To terrorize several million people wondering if the next bullet might be aimed at them?

Nah, not this baby.

It just worked out that way.

And so, Saturday morning, with two sniper suspects locked behind maximum-security prison bars, and their weapon of choice, this Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, safely under wraps, it seemed a nice time to get a better look at one of these things - and get some feel for how simply one might be purchased.

For openers, it goes for about $995. But you can't just walk out of the store when you've plunked down your money. There's a Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms form to fill out: Firearms Transaction Record Part I - Over-the-Counter.

The form includes many questions designed to separate the true sportsman from the potential homicidal maniac. For example: "Are you the actual buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you."

To which an NRA instructor at the gun shop, Jason Honkofsky, acknowledges that, yes, it is "very easy to lie about that. You look for body language. You do your best, but ... "

But, for reference on the danger of such straw-man purchases, check the record on a fellow named Joseph Palczynski. Or have we forgotten the guy whose two-week Baltimore County rampage two years ago ended with several dead, with several taken hostage, and with police held at bay for several days? (Palczynski's weapon was purchased by Constance Waugh, who was later sentenced to 16 months in prison for buying him the weapon. For the record, she bought it at White Marsh Arms.)

Here's another government question: "Are you under indictment ... in any court for a felony, or any other crime, for which the judge could imprison you for more than one year?" The Treasury Department's computers can tell "in three or four minutes," Honkofsky says, if you're lying about this.

But that depends, of course, if the buyer is purchasing for himself - or for somebody else.

Here's another nice question: "Are you a fugitive from justice?"

In light of recent events, the question strikes a certain uncomfortable chord. Problem is, when these sniper suspects picked up the Bushmaster rifle police found in their car, they were not yet fugitives. That didn't happen until after they'd bought the weapon.

Here's another question allegedly designed to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people: "Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective ... or have you ever been to a mental institution?"

Among other problems, a person could have a mental illness without having gone to court over it. Thus, there would be nothing in the government's database. Or, like Palczynski, who had a lengthy history of mental illness, he could have someone else make the purchase.

A week before the gubernatorial election, the gun issue takes on heightened importance. Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has gotten failing grades from gun-control advocates. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, for all her staunch anti-gun beliefs, has been running commercials in which her big proposal is expanding ballistic fingerprinting of weapons.

That's it? But why are such weapons as the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle available at all?

"I don't know why they picked this weapon," said Honkofsky of the snipers. "There's better guns than this to shoot."

Now there's a comfort.

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