WASHINGTON — Manufacturers of the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the type of weapon used last week in the Newtown, Conn., killings, girded for the worst Tuesday as gun control moved to the forefront of the legislative agenda in the nation’s capital and retailers pulled the weapon from store sales floors and websites.
Republicans and Democrats were in rare lockstep, with prominent figures in each party calling Tuesday for a special commission to look into the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and recommend changes in gun control laws and the nation’s mental health system.
Retailers either were removing high-powered weapons from their sales floors or pulling down online information on the weapons used in the mass killing, as well as in shootings earlier this month in an Oregon mall and over the summer in Aurora, Colo.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, broke its silence Tuesday, saying its members were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by the “horrific and senseless murders.” The NRA, which plans a news conference Friday, said it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions” to prevent another such massacre.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have huddled with Cabinet members and senior staffers this week to begin forging a more formal response to last week’s mass shooting of schoolchildren. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama was “actively supportive” of legislation reintroduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Feinstein hopes to revive an assault-weapon ban that expired in 2004, and Carney said the president also supported ending a loophole that allowed Americans to skirt federal background checks by purchasing assault weapons at gun shows, where standard background checks may be waived.
"And there are other elements of gun legislation that he could support," Carney said, adding that the president would be "interested in looking" at legislation on high-capacity magazines.
One reason that last week’s killing spree was so deadly is that gunman Adam Lanza had large-capacity magazine clips that allowed him to fire multiple rounds before having to reload.
Makers of AR-15’s pondered the possibility that they soon might be legislated into oblivion.
“Our sole business being the assault rifle, it is a concern that it will literally put us out of business,” said Ken Rinkor, vice president of Tactical Arms Manufacturer Inc. in Huntersville, N.C. “That is not for us to determine. If the general public decides to vote the way of banning assault rifles, then they can certainly do so, and we don’t have an opinion on how it will affect us.”
The family-owned company near Charlotte is a specialty manufacturer of AR-15’s, advertising on its website that “the same AR15 M4 used by the U.S. Army can be your home defense weapon of choice.” The company sells mostly to law enforcement personnel, Rinkor said.
While he feared a ban on rifles, Rinkor supported calls for a ban on sales to the public of high-capacity magazines, which may be used on his AR-15’s or those made by other manufacturers.
“Frankly, I think there’s no need for anybody to have such . . . magazines, 20 or 30 rounds. It makes no sense at all to have that large of a magazine, even for personal protection,” he said.
Private-equity giant Cerberus Capital Management LP announced Tuesday that it had hired a financial adviser and would begin the process of selling Freedom Group, the company it owns that makes the Bushmaster AR-15 military-style rifle, one of which was used to kill 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” the company said in a statement that announced its plans to sell the lucrative company it founded as an umbrella for numerous gun makers it’s acquired.
There was a clear self-interest at stake in the surprise announcement. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System and other big public pension funds were considering divesting their stakes in Cerberus, threatening the private-equity firm’s broad investments. The close look at Cerberus followed a call to boycott the Wall Street firm from former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
“As a firm, we are investors, not statesmen or policy makers. Our role is to make investments on behalf of our clients, who are comprised of the pension plans of firemen, teachers, policemen and other municipal workers and unions, endowments, and other institutions and individuals,” the Cerberus statement said.
However, the firm that said it was neither statesman nor policymaker is run by two who were. Former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Treasury Secretary John Snow, both Republicans, are high-profile chairmen of Cerberus.
A person familiar with Cerberus operations said both men were actively involved in the firm’s investment decisions, but that he didn’t think either was involved in setting up Freedom Group. That company was formed after the 2007 acquisition of Bushmaster Firearms International. Bushmaster was renamed Remington Outdoor Co., and the popular Bushmaster AR-15, found on gunman Lanza, is still made in Madison, N.C.
While Cerberus announced plans to sell the company, its outside spokesman Peter Duda couldn’t say what would happen to the stock of weapons already made or whether production would stop in the interim.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., one of the largest sellers of the Bushmaster AR-15, pulled its online promotional material for the weapon in deference to the events of last week.
“We don’t sell guns online and we have made no change to the assortment of guns we sell in our stores. We did have an informational page on walmart.com for this product, which we did take down in light of the tragic events,” Kory Lundberg, a Wal-Mart representative, told McClatchy. “However, this product was never available for purchase on the site.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods, a Pittsburgh-based chain that operates 511 stores nationwide, announced on its website that it was halting sales of modern high-powered rifles such as the AR-15.
“Out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning we have removed all guns from sale and from display in our store nearest to Newtown and suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide,” the company said on its website. Its representative didn’t return calls for further comment.
The reference to “modern sporting rifles” is a telling one. In its 2011 annual report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this March 16, Dick’s Sporting Goods says in a section on risks that it doesn’t sell “assault weapons or automatic firearms.”
The chain did in fact did sell the Bushmaster AR-15, as is apparent by searching the threads of Internet chat rooms frequented by gun enthusiasts.
“Wandered into dicks sporting goods. Surprised to see mp15/22,. Optic ready bushmasters . . . Stag model2. Gsg 5’s and a rack of accessories. Gotta say, their prices blow gander mtn out of the water,” wrote Boss419, on a thread he started about AR-15’s on May 19 on the website NYFIREARMS.com.
The disclosure by Dick’s Sporting Goods in its annual report was a sin of omission. The Bushmaster and AR-15’s more broadly are classified as semi-automatic weapons, and there’s no technical classification of assault rifle.
The term is used generically for automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Neither is a conventional rifle, as they can fire 30 rounds at virtually the same speed without reloading. The term “assault” defines what they’re conventionally used for, not how they fire.
Other manufacturers and retailers of AR-15’s tried to keep a low profile Tuesday. At the headquarters of gun maker Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, Conn., not far from the tragedy, it was impossible to get a live person through the switchboard.
The company posted a statement on its website: “While we have received press inquiries regarding the incident, we do not believe it is appropriate to make further public statements at this very emotional time.”
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