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When Jim Cooley carried his AR-15 rifle fully loaded with a 100-round drum into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport last month, it revived a Georgia congressman’s efforts to restrict weapons in airports nationwide.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, cited the incident in again proposing the Airport Security Act, which would ban loaded weapons outside airports’ security areas. Federal law already bans carrying weapons through airport security checkpoints.
"Two weeks ago, a man entered the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta, Georgia, carrying a loaded AR-15 automatic weapon with an extended capacity, 100-round magazine," Johnson said in a House floor speech June 15.
"Mr. Speaker, actions like this, which follow shootings at airports in Los Angeles and Houston, undermine public security in the same way as yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater."
Johnson’s proposal has been assigned to the House Homeland Security Committee, where the political battle over gun control will continue.
But something in the rhetoric caught our eye for a closer look. Was the rifle in question at our airport an automatic weapon?
The AR-15 that Cooley carried is most likely the most popular such rifle on the market today.
That is in part because several variants have been made since Colt started selling its version of the rifle as a semi-automatic weapon to civilians in the early 1960s.
One modified version of the firearm was adopted as the M-16 rifle, deployed by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era.
Several different manufacturers have since made versions of the rifle for private use. But the term "AR-15" has consistently been used to refer to the semi-automatic version Colt made popular. A fully automatic version is not sold directly to civilians.
The federal assault weapons ban prohibited some versions of the AR-15 – such as those with collapsible stocks and bayonet lug – sold to civilians between 1994 and 2004.
However, AR-15s built before the ban were legal – as were versions designed to comply with the federal law.
Those loopholes effectively kept various forms of the AR-15 in production. For instance, admitted movie theater shooter James Holmes used a version of the AR-15 in the Aurora, Colo., massacre in 2012 that would have been illegal under the federal ban.
But similar versions, including the Colt Match Target rifle, would have been legal, according to a 2004 University of Pennsylvania study funded by the National Institute of Justice.
AUTOMATIC VERSUS SEMI-AUTOMATIC
So, it’s clear the rifles can be deadly.
In fact, semi-automatic weapons are often more deadly than the scarier sounding automatic versions, said Jay Corzine, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida.
That boils down to the difference between the two:
Automatic weapons fire continuously when the shooter pulls the trigger once. The firing stops only when you release the trigger.
Semi-automatic weapons will automatically reload, but the shooter must pull the trigger for each shot fired.
Many law enforcement agencies that use small arms rifles, such as for SWAT teams, prefer semi-automatic weapons because there is less recoil in firing them. That allows for better aim, Corzine said.
Nearly all AR-15 rifles are manufactured as semi-automatic weapons, in part because of that accuracy. However, gun shops do sell converter kits and manuals, which allow the rifles to be turned into automatic weapons that wouldn’t differ at a glance from the semi-automatic version, Corzine said.
"An automatic firing mechanism is not more lethal in number of people killed, but you will end up with more people hit," Corzine said. "If you are shooting into a crowd, you’re going to hit a lot of people."
The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 children and school staff prompted Connecticut, Maryland and New York to join three other states with heavy restrictions or outright bans on the AR-15.
But Georgia is not one of the states with restrictions. Likewise, Cooley was legally able to sling his AR-15 over his chest because of a 2010 state law that allows weapons in areas not covered by airport security.
Cooley, who lives in Winder, said he brought his gun and the high-capacity magazine for safety when dropping off his daughter for a flight.
His weapon, he said, is a semi-automatic rifle.
"If you look at the video, the officer called my rifle an automatic weapon, and I had to correct her," said Cooley, who posted a video of his visit to the airport while carrying the weapon. "It is a semi-automatic rifle. To say it’s not is untrue. You can’t just say anything you want on the House floor."
In his floor statements, Johnson cited the economic role that airports, especially Hartsfield-Jackson, play in communities as a reason to regulate guns for safety concerns.
Johnson was at meetings in the United Nations when we reached out to him.
Ben Waldon, his director of intergovernmental affairs, told us the congressman concedes he misspoke in calling Cooley’s weapon an automatic rather than a semi-automatic weapon.
Waldon added that the 100-round drum also was a concern, regardless of the status of the weapon.
Studies indicate limiting high-capacity magazines can affect gun violence since they are involved in more crimes (about 25 percent) than automatic and semi-automatic weapons (2 percent to 8 percent).
Small-capacity magazines require the shooter to reload, which gives bystanders a chance to intervene as they did in the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords that killed six.
"Mr. Cooley’s weapon was a semi-automatic. But it is an assault rifle, with a high-capacity magazine," Waldon said. "The congressman feels these kinds of weapons stoke fear, not civility, and the incident in Atlanta demonstrates the extremes of allowing these kinds of guns in airports."
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson cited a recent incident of a man carrying his AR-15 rifle in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in reviving his efforts to ban weapons from all areas of airports.
Johnson called the gun an "automatic weapon," something he and his staff concede was incorrect.
The gun owner has confirmed he owns the semi-automatic version of the rifle. That is the more common make of this weapon, although all sides and experts acknowledge the weapon can be converted to an automatic weapon.
The bigger concern was the 100-magazine drum. Even in a semi-automatic weapon, that would allow a shooter to fire 100 rounds before reloading, the scary prospect that Johnson appeared to want to reference in his statement.
Johnson got the gun wrong, the magazine for the weapon right.
For that reason, we rate Johnson’s statement Half True.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, House floor speech, June 15, 2015
U.S. House of Representatives, 2015-2016 session, House Resolution 2767
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "How guns became legal at Hartsfield-Jackson," June 3, 2015
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Political Insider blog, June 15, 2015
The Washington Post, "Everything you need to know about banning assault weapons, in one post," Dec. 17, 2012
The Blue Book of Gun Values, Colt AR-15 pre-ban 1963 to 1989, accessed June 19, 2015
The University of Pennsylvania, "Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003," July 2004
Phone interview with Ben Waldon, director of intergovernmental affairs for U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, June 19, 2015
Phone interview with Jim Cooley, June 19, 2015
Phone interview with Jay Corzine, professor of sociology, University of Central Florida, June 18, 2015
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