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Boulder, Colorado Suspect's Gun Reveals Limits Of Gun Control Legislation


The gun used in the Boulder, Colo., mass killing this week looked like an assault-style rifle, but it is not. Technically, it's a pistol, and that allows it to get around strict regulations. And that scrambles the very definition of these firearms as lawmakers consider any gun control legislation.

Ben Markus of Colorado Public Radio has been looking into this and joins us now. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So if the gun isn't a rifle, what is it?

MARKUS: It's actually a Ruger AR-556 pistol. So it's kind of a hybrid. The barrel is six inches shorter than an AR-15 rifle. It's about a pound lighter. You can't have a stock on it, which you would stabilize to your shoulder. If you did use a stabilization against your shoulder, then it would be called the short-barrel rifle, which would subjected to all kinds of regulations. You'd have to register it with the ATF. You'd have to pay a special tax. But by calling it a pistol, you get around some of those things.

I also didn't realize how extremely popular these firearms are. Many experts I talked to said that if it's a popular rifle, it's probably been pistolized (ph), turned into a pistol, in part because they're slightly cheaper, but also because they're a lot more fun to shoot.

SIMON: And what I'll refer to more decorously is the pistol's adaptability can change the way it's regulated.

MARKUS: That's right. So a pistol can only have what's called a brace on the end of it. And so it can't be used as a stock. It can be, like, strapped to your forearm, and that keeps it being a pistol. If you use it as a stock - even if it's called a brace and you use it as a stock, now it's a rifle. And so it just becomes very muddy as to what exactly this thing is. It's clearly deadly. And so in many ways, it acts just like a rifle, or at least is as deadly as a rifle.

SIMON: Colorado lawmakers are considering a ban on assault-style weapons. Would this pistol, as we have to call it, be affected by what they're contemplating?

MARKUS: We don't know the exact language of what they're considering, but usually pistols aren't included in their definitions of assault-style weapons. The distinction seems a little ridiculous to some people, but to gun law, this does make a difference. I think that for the first time, some of these lawmakers are thinking about pistolized versions of rifles, and so I would not be surprised if there was some attempt to get at this.

Oftentimes, gun control legislation, when they're trying to define assault rifles, they kind of go off based on how it looks. Does it look like an AR-15? Does it have the magazine that's in front of the trigger instead of inside the gun handle? So oftentimes they're trying to regulate what an assault rifle is based on what they think it looks like. They're just extremely difficult things to try to define. And it shows you just how complex this issue is for lawmakers who are trying to put some guardrails around these things when the difference between a rifle and a pistol is nebulous.

SIMON: Yeah. And I have to ask, Ben, based on your reporting experience, was this pistol in any way developed specifically to try and avoid some of the regulations that had been passed?

MARKUS: That's a great question. We asked for a comment from the gun manufacturer, Ruger. They did not respond. What I'm told is that if you have a popular rifle and they're - these companies want to make money. They come up with a new product, which is a pistol version of the rifle. So not necessarily to get around the regulations, but to offer consumers another choice for a popular rifle.

SIMON: Ben Markus, Colorado Public Radio, thanks so much for being with us.

MARKUS: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.