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June 15, 2009

“Those types of weapons ... They’re pretty powerful.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long claimed that assault weapons are no more dangerous than any other type of rifle, stating: “In the mid-1980s, gun control groups invented the slang term ‘assault weapon’ and applied it to certain semi-automatic firearms which, though designed for civilian use, look like modern fully-automatic assault rifles used by the military.” That view contrasts sharply with that of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which apparently speaks in slang: “Assault weapons were designed for rapid fire, close quarter shooting at human beings. That is why they were put together the way they were. You will not find these guns in a duck blind or at the Olympics. They are mass produced mayhem.”

The expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in September 2004 has led to real violence in our country, as we have seen in a series of disturbing shootings this year. Sadly, it is our nation’s law enforcement officers who are often caught in the crosshairs of these weapons. Just ask Officer Sean Fleming of the Chesapeake Police Department.

On June 1, Fleming was on his way home from the Department’s third precinct when he responded to a call of shots fired near Interstate 64. He arrived at the scene in his green Jeep Wrangler and immediately met an onslaught of bullets fired by Christopher White, who hours earlier had assisted in the abduction of Tione Vincent, 30, off of East Liberty Street in Norfolk, Virginia.

White jumped out a van and opened fire on Fleming with a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle. In the resulting firefight, Fleming was shot four times. The gunfire also blew out two of the Jeep’s tires, shattered its front headlights and left 12 bullets holes in the front windshield. Police believe that two rounds went through the metal of Fleming’s car before piercing his bullet-proof vest—a demonstration of the power of the AK-47. All told, White fired approximately 30 rounds at the Jeep in a matter of seconds.

As Chesapeake Police Major T.D. Branch noted, “Those types of weapons, depending on what kind of rounds, typically penetrate metal. They’re pretty powerful.”

Additional officers arrived on the scene quickly and gave chase to White and his fellow captors, who fled the scene. In a firefight that ensued, White was killed and two other suspects were arrested. Sadly, Tione Vincent was found dead in the back of the van, apparently killed before police arrived.

Thankfully, Officer Fleming survived his injuries after being airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and is now recovering. It is also a credit to law enforcement that no civilians were injured given that the shootout occurred in a busy intersection near rush hour.

As of June 11, the Chesapeake Police Department was still attempting to determine how White acquired the AK-47 used in the shooting. Before this incident, White was wanted in Norfolk on a series of charges including robbery, conspiracy and failure to appear in court—and as a fugitive from justice would have been banned under federal law from purchasing or owning firearms. It is possible that he acquired the weapon through an unregulated private sale in Virginia. Such sales do not require sellers to conduct background checks or maintain records of sale.

The NRA justifies its support for the legalization of assault weapons by stating that “self-defense is the primary purpose of the right to keep and bear arms.” After a series of assault weapon shootings this year targeting police, perhaps the best response to this question is: Defense against whom?

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