Mike Relihan pulls back the charging handle, turns off the safety, aims and fires.
Pop, pop, pop. In quick succession, .22-caliber bullets pierce a paper target inside Relihan’s Bullseye Shooting Range near 13th and Oliver. “This is my favorite gun,” Relihan says of his Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22, a semi-automatic rifle. It’s accurate, unless fired at too fast a pace, and the .22-caliber cartridges cost less than other ammunition. “This is fun,” Relihan says, as gunpowder wafts around him.
The rifle – with a collapsible stock, pistol grip and flat-black finish and capable of using a high-capacity ammunition clip – looks like a military-style rifle. It is similar to but less powerful than the .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 20 first-graders and six adults in a Connecticut school a little over a week ago. Lanza, 20, killed himself after shooting the others.
To Relihan, the rifle he’s demonstrating is simply a gun, something for target practice, for recreation, for shooting varmints. To him, targeting a gun is not a solution to senseless violence. To him and others in the gun business, it is not an “assault rifle” but a “modern sporting rifle.”
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To some others, shocked by the school shooting, that kind of assault rifle is now a child-killer. To them, it represents something unnecessary and unsportsmanlike when it comes to hunting, something that should be banned.
Some gun outlets across the nation have at least temporarily stopped selling the type of weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But, if anything, Relihan and Don Holman, owner of the Bullet Stop on West Pawnee near Meridian, are selling more of the assault rifles since the shooting.
The buyers include people who fear they won’t be able to get one of the rifles if increased gun control passes, or perhaps they want to invest in something that might escalate in value.
Where Relihan used to sell one of the rifles per day, now he is selling up to five a day. Of course, it’s also the holidays, a busy time for gun shops selling to gift buyers.
In the past couple days, Holman rapidly sold out of his stock of 50 to 60 AR-15 assault rifles, which vary in price from $895 to $2,700 at his store. Customers are willing to put money down for orders and wait six months, Holman said.
He saw an increase in AR-15 gun sales before the presidential election, but since the Newtown shooting, the sales have been even higher.
It’s anybody’s guess how many of the assault rifles are in the Wichita area or across the state, but Holman and Relihan say there are probably thousands in Wichita.
An assault rifle hasn’t been used in a Wichita homicide since 2001, according to police records, said Wichita police Lt. Doug Nolte.
Of the guns seized from gang members this year, 95 percent have been handguns, Nolte said.
The Wichita police force now has 44 assault rifles spread among its patrol officers each shift, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said. Handguns are limited to fairly close firing; the rifles give officers the ability to shoot accurately at a distance. The weapons are especially useful if police encounter someone armed with an assault rifle and plenty of ammunition.
The use of guns “comes down to personal responsibility,” Williams said.
Nolte, the Wichita police spokesman, said Kansas probably has relatively more assault-type weapons because of the prevalence of hunters and the population’s interest in guns.
He said he has a neighbor who has five AR-15 rifles. The neighbor is a collector and keeps the rifles safely secured, Nolte said. “This guy’s a nice guy,” he said.
But in the hands of the wrong person, Nolte said, such a rifle “gives them distance to harm us.”
“In law enforcement, we run into people with mental illnesses,” Nolte said. “The problem when you deal someone with a mental illness, and then you factor in that gun, it’s just an unpredictable situation.”
According to media accounts, Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, was extremely withdrawn.
In recent years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas has prosecuted weapons cases involving assault rifles. In May 2011, a 31-year-old Mexico man was convicted of possessing firearms while being unlawfully in the United States. Authorities arrested him on I-70 near Hays with $14,400 in cash, two pistols and an SKS semi-automatic assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said in a news release at the time, “In this case, where an assault rifle and loaded handguns are present with ammunition and a large amount of cash, we all know what is going on and we know what a potentially dangerous situation this was.”
In June 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that a 29-year-old Wichita man, Daniel Gene Meade, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after a Salina shooting. According to a press release, investigators responding to the March 2010 incident learned that Meade had been in a dispute with certain people, had driven past their home several times, that about 28 rounds had been fired. Investigators found body armor and an assault rifle. Meade couldn’t legally possess a firearm, ammunition or body armor because he had a 1999 conviction for firing a weapon into an occupied building.
More recently, Grissom announced on Nov. 29 that two Topeka men were facing charges for possession of two stolen assault rifles – a STAG-15 and a Kel Tac sub-2000 .40-caliber assault rifle. Authorities said one of the two men is in a street gang.
Legal uses of assault rifles vary. Holman, the gun shop and range owner, said a lot of returning veterans are attracted to the assault rifles because they resemble the guns they trained with and deployed with.
Relihan, who owns the gun shop and indoor range off East 13th Street, said he knows of a man who fires at a junk car. Many use them for target shooting, and they are part of competitive shooting events, he said. They are a gun of choice for controlling animals that some people consider pests, such as prairie dogs or coyotes, and for bringing down wild hogs during hunting outings in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, Relihan said.
“It’s not just a bunch of crazy people running around,” he said.
Some assault rifles are used for hunting deer and other big game. As state hunting laws stand now, a .223-caliber assault rifle like the one used to kill the schoolchildren could not be used to hunt deer in Kansas. The current law requires a minimum caliber of .23 for big game, and .25 for elk, said Kevin Jones, director of law enforcement with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
In January, the agency’s commission is expected to review regulations including those that set minimum calibers for big game.
One criticism of assault rifles is that a skilled and humane hunter doesn’t need a rifle that can fire 30 rounds without having to be reloaded.
Sound hunting practices emphasize making “one round count,” Jones said, where the goal is to “quickly and humanely kill the animal you’re shooting.”