Because of their ease of purchase, effectiveness, convertibility, and mystique, assault weapons have become increasingly popular among people involved in the drug trade. Or as one DEA spokesman put it, “There’s a machismo to carrying the biggest, ugliest, and most powerful weapon available.”
According to DEA Special Agent Maurice Hill, drug dealers in Miami began to switch over from revolvers to higher capacity pistols in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, they had begun using shoulder-carried weapons, and by the early 1980s had upgraded to weapons like the UZI. Since then, criminals nationwide have expanded into a broad category of assault weapons. Regarding assault weapons, Special Agent Maurice Hill says, “They’re all over now.”
Noting that drug traffickers “seem to like the AR-15s, AK-47s, TEC-9s,” ATF spokesperson Tom Hill concurs: “We’ve seen a proliferation because of the drug trade. More and more people want to have increased firepower and the status of having the semi-automatic assault type weapon. It looks dangerous. Most assault weapons used in criminal acts were initially purchased legally. Some are stolen, some come from over the counter through straw purchases, some are from people who fill out the forms illegally.”
In 1987, ATF traced weapons seized from two members of a Jamaican drug gang (known as “posses”) in Tampa, Florida. The trace found that 149 weapons had been purchased over the counter from Tampa-area dealers. The majority of the weapons were TEC-9s, MACs, AR-15s, and Glock 17 handguns, “all preferred weapons of the Jamaican posses.” (The Glock 17, the first handgun to incorporate plastic into its structural design, is not considered an assault weapon.) As the result of this increased criminal firepower, police departments are beginning to abandon their six-shot revolvers for higher-capacity semi-automatic handguns.
Assault weapons have also become the weapon of choice for a different category of criminal: America’s right-wing paramilitary extremists. In his book, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, author James Coates describes the scene outside the 224-acre compound of the paramilitary extremist organization, The Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord (CSA), located in Three Brothers, Arkansas, prior to a raid by law enforcement officials in 1985:
“[A]ll visitors were greeted by a group of roughly half a dozen obviously frightened and surly young men carrying Mini-14s, MAC-10s and other automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Other armed CSA soldiers were clearly visible in a fifty-foot-tall guard tower overlooking the front gate, from which they pointed machine guns at reporters. Noble [a CSA member], wearing a Bowie knife strapped to one leg and cradling a converted AR-15 automatic rifle in his arm, repeatedly came to the gate to spar verbally with the nervous news media.”
Until recently, police had believed that the CSA—after its members were subjected to increased government prosecution, its compound deserted, and its leader, James Ellison, imprisoned for crimes that included the manufacture of automatic weapons—had disbanded. But in May of 1988, CSA member Londell Williams was charged with conspiring to assassinate presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Police recovered a converted AR-15 from Williams.
Other paramilitary organizations that favor assault weapons and have been known to convert them to fully automatic machine guns include the Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations, and The Order.
Although many drug traffickers and members of paramilitary organizations are convicted felons, they are often able to illegally buy these weapons from retail sales outlets. In every state, assault rifles and shotguns are sold under the same lax restrictions that apply to hunting rifles and shotguns. Assault pistols are sold under the same laws that apply to handguns, which vary from locality to locality.
Some states do require that the purchaser of any firearm first receive an owner’s ID card or permit, while other states have a waiting period for all firearms. Yet most states’ standards for the sale of long guns are no more severe than the federal law, which requires only that the purchaser be 18 years old and fill out a federal form 4473. On this form, the purchaser swears that he is not a convicted felon, drug addict or alcoholic, and that he does not have a history of mental illness. Most purchases are cash and carry, and long guns can be purchased interstate, with no limit on the number of weapons that can be purchased.
The federal standards for handguns are essentially identical to that of long guns, except that they cannot be sold interstate, the purchaser must be 21 years old, and multiple purchases (more than one handgun purchased within five working days) must be reported to ATF.
(In 1986, Congress outlawed the future production of machine guns for civilian use. Currently, there is a pool of more than 187,000 machine guns that citizens can legally purchase.  To obtain a machine gun, a citizen must be fingerprinted, photographed, submit to a background check, wait five to six months, and a $200 transfer tax must me paid. These same standards must be met to possess silencers, sawed-off rifles and shotguns, and military weaponry, such as hand grenades, land mines, grenade launchers, and other weapons and accessories restricted under the National Firearms Act of 1934.)
The most restrictive handgun laws are on the state and local level, and assault pistols would be sold under these standards. Handgun laws in America range from Morton Grove, Illinois, which has banned the sale and private possession of handguns, to the state of Florida, which operates essentially under only the federal standards.
Because many assault weapons—such as the AR-15A2, M100P carbine, Ruger Mini-14, Street Sweeper, and UZI carbine—can be purchased as standard long guns by virtually anyone who is willing to lie on the form, they are a boon to criminals. Assault pistols can be purchased easily by criminals in states with lax handgun laws such as Texas, Virginia, and Florida. From there, these weapons can then be sold to criminals in cities and states with more restrictive laws.
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