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Why gun groups say 'no way' to assault weapons ban

Fulfilling a promise made in Newtown one month ago, President Obama is set to reveal proposals to curb gun violence. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

With assault weapons firmly in the crosshairs of state and federal lawmakers, gun-rights groups say they are not willing to give an inch when it comes to restricting access to the weapon of choice in recent mass shootings.

From arguments over what exactly defines an assault weapon to enthusiasts who say the guns are just plain fun to shoot, defenders of assault weapons say the White House and others are misguided in their focus on banning them.

“I can’t possibly imagine what logic people are following that somehow another law, just one more law, will solve these issues,” said Keith Morgan, president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group.

“People are killed in greater number by cars, bats, hammers, hands, and feet,” he added. “Examining the tool and attempting to ban the tool will have absolutely no effect. We’re dealing with a people problem. We’ve got to find a people solution.”

President Obama on Wednesday called for a renewed ban on "military-style" assault weapons, among the most popular guns in America. They were used by both accused Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes and Connecticut gunman Adam Lanza. But gun-rights advocates like Morgan argue that despite the guns’ roles in high-profile mass killings, they are used in a relatively small number of homicides.

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According to the FBI’s Unified Crime Report for 2011, handguns were used 6,220 of the 12,664 homicides reported. Rifles accounted for 323 homicides, with knives and other unnamed firearms making up most of the rest.

Julie Jacobson / AP

Sig Sauer representative Adam Painchaud explains one of the company's newest products, the MPX 9mm pistol caliber submachine gun, at the 35th annual SHOT Show, Jan. 15, in Las Vegas.

Other gun-rights advocates are willing to entertain a conversation about assault weapons, but they remain dubious.

“If someone can show me how it can save lives, we’ll look at anything,” said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association. He remains unconvinced, however, that an assault weapons ban would have done anything to prevent mass shootings like that in Newtown, Conn.

“I don’t like a bunch of dead kids, so I don’t see why we waste time on stale policies,” Irvine said.

The debate about what works will play out in the halls of Congress as well as state capitals, but also in American living rooms.

A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center found generous support among most Americans for at least some new controls on guns. The poll found that a majority of the public – 55 percent – would favor a ban on assault weapons. That support broke somewhat along party lines, with 69 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans favoring a legislation restricting assault weapons.

California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York already place some prohibitions on assault weapons.

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In California, which has some of the nation’s toughest regulations on assault weapons, the law lists 75 assault weapon types by name, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. California is also one of three states that employ a “one-feature” test to identify assault weapons, banning all weapons that have one military-style feature, such as a pistol grip or telescoping stock.

Some pro-gun activists, like Paul Valone of Grass Roots North Carolina, dismiss the category of assault weapons entirely.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

A Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle.

“It’s relatively easy to circumvent a firearms ban based on cosmetic features. A pistol grip does not change the function of the firearm,” Valone said. “None of these things make any difference whatsoever.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law on Tuesday that tightened the state’s existing ban on assault weapons by applying the one-feature test.

The last federal ban on assault weapons lapsed in 2004. It was criticized by gun control proponents for allowing gun makers to easily circumvent restrictions may making small changes to existing models of rifles. That law required guns to have two military-style features to be considered assault weapons.

Ross Meyer, a manager at Gun World and Archery, a Nevada gun store, said some of his customers buy AR-style weapons for defense – but many also simply enjoy shooting the guns.

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“A lot of them, it’s just kind of fun to go out and shoot,” said Meyer. His store sold out of the 150 AR-style weapons it had in stock within three days of the shooting in Newtown. “And then also the high-capacity magazine, that’s fun to have.”

“Semi-autos are just one of the most fun to go out and shoot when it comes to the recreation of it,” Meyer said.

Activists contend that there’s no political gain for them in sitting down at the table to discuss restrictions on assault weapons.

“As a strategic measure, it would be a horrific mistake for Republicans to play this game again,” said Michael Hammond, legislative consultant for Gun Owners of America, a national pro-gun rights group that claims 300,000 members.

Longtime conservative activist Larry Hunter is a co-organizer of Gun Appreciation Day. The day, which Hunter said is intended to promote Second Amendment rights, is scheduled for January 19. Hunter sees any ban on assault weapons as an encroachment on American’s constitutional rights.

“I hope it’s a non-starter,” Hunter said of any new ban on assault weapons. “But I think the world has changed so dramatically since it was first enacted and then allowed to expire, we have to take very seriously the possibility that they will do something.”