The man who shot a top Republican lawmaker at baseball practice Wednesday likely used a semi-automatic rifle not banned by law – a fact that will set off yet another debate over gun control in America.
Federal and Virginia laws do not prohibit the possession of semi-automatic rifles if they are used for lawful purposes, including hunting. A congressional ban on certain types of rifles expired in 2004 after 10 years.
Virginia allows carrying a loaded semi-automatic rifle equipped with a magazine that will hold more than 20 rounds of ammunition in certain public locations, but a permit is required. Failing to have a permit is a misdemeanor.
Multiple witnesses, including several members of Congress, described the gun as a long rifle, possibly an AR-15 or AK-47, which are often called assault weapons, a term gun-rights groups oppose in favor of semi-automatic rifles. Witnesses also described a second weapon as a handgun, allowable under federal and state law, though they are banned in certain locations, including near schools.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he saw what appeared to be a AR-15 lying in the grass after the shooting. The assailant's other gun looked like a 9mm pistol, he said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is conducting traces on a rifle and a handgun, according to the FBI. Police declined to identify the number or type of weapons used. It's possible the rifle was not a semi-automatic, despite the numerous witness statements; possession of that weapon would also be permissible under law.
The shooter, identified by the FBI as James T. Hodgkinson, had several encounters with local police in Illinois, including accusations of domestic abuse, drunken driving and shooting in the woods near his home with a 12-gauge shotgun.
It’s unclear where Hodgkinson, who had been living in Alexandria, Va. more recently, bought the gun. He had a valid Firearm Owner’s ID, allowing him to purchase a gun in Illinois, meaning he underwent a background check. Virginia does not require a similar permit for purchase, only for carrying a concealed weapon.
Depending on where he bought the guns — and whether he purchased them at all — his name was likely run through a database designed to prevent those who are barred from owning guns to buy one. Yet the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is missing millions of mental-health and drug-abuse records.
“It is not about keeping certain guns out of all hands; it's about keeping all guns out of certain, dangerous hands,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “All Americans, including our elected leaders, deserve to lead their daily lives without fear of being shot. Solutions will never be found in what we do in the wake of any single tragedy, but by what we do, together, every day to prevent this everyday violence.”
Some lawmakers and elected officials immediately called for a change to the nation’s gun laws, though most — even those who have supported gun control measures, including advocacy groups — were muted in their response.
This kind of mindless violence must stop, and I’m dedicated to doing all I can to putting an end to these senseless tragedies
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
“Democrats are not opposed to licensed gun holders who are responsible, that are hunters or self-defense,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY said. “We're not opposed to responsible people having guns.”
Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has long advocated for background checks for all gun purchases, said several times Wednesday that he continued to believe changes are needed. “There are too many guns on the street,” he said.
Congress has resisted and is now considering proposals that would make the purchase of suppressors — more commonly known as silencers — easier and cheaper in the United States and allowing Americans to carry concealed firearms from state to state, bypassing a confusing patchwork of laws.
“Gun control doesn't stop someone who has the intent to do harm, whether it is with a gun or a knife,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said. “It's certainly not the time to talk policy as much as it is to talk safety and hopefully put people out of harms' way.”
Meadows, who is a gun owner, said he has long advocated for addressing mental health issues. “If we're going to focus on anything, we need to focus on the mental health side of things," he said. "You can't stop people from doing evil things.”
“I am and always will be a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., speaking to reporters while still wearing his baseball gear, scrapes visible on his elbow. “Put it this way: if we had had more weapons there we could have subdued that shooter more quickly.”
Americans for Limited Government, a conservative group, called for a national concealed carry law. “While it is particularly heinous that this was an attack on the very institution of government, it would be no less tragic if it had been against everyday citizens,” said the group’s president, Rick Manning. “Those citizens need to have the choice guaranteed to them by the Constitution to have the means to protect themselves. Congress needs to act now to pass national concealed carry legislation.”
The National Rifle Association did not issue a policy statement but spokeswoman Dana Loesch referenced armed police officers who were at the baseball practice on FOX Business: “Those guys with guns saved innocents today. That’s the ultimate lesson in this.”
Lesley Clark and Lindsay Wise contributed.