Jim Kenyon: Assault-Style Rifles Are a Loaded Issue

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

I arrived at the gun show in Rutland on Saturday afternoon loaded for bear. Strolling past tables stocked with black and camouflage painted assault-style rifles, I could feel my blood pressure rising.

After the most recent mass shooting — this one at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 people, including 14 teenagers, dead — how could anyone not see the need for a federal ban on these killing machines?

Three hours later, I left the Franklin Center exhibition hall still unconvinced that AR-15s and other semiautomatic assault-style rifles have a place in our society. But I had a better understanding of why some Vermonters think otherwise.

When Will Lanfear, of Rutland, joined the Army out of high school, Uncle Sam handed him an M16 — the military’s version of the AR-15. For a year, it helped keep him safe in war-torn Afghanistan. It’s the gun he grew up with and knows best.

Semiautomatic assault rifles are “fun to shoot,” Lanfear told me. “They don’t have a big recoil and they can be used for long range.”

They’re good for target shooting at a range or gravel pit, which, I guess, is reason enough for some Vermonters to plunk down $550 for a base model.

On Saturday, Lanfear was helping out his friend John Cioffi Jr., owner of Black Dog Shooting Supplies in Rutland. In the show’s first five hours, they sold eight M&P 15s, Smith & Wesson’s version of the AR-15.

A fair number were gobbled up by what’s known in the gun business as “panic buyers.” They have no affinity for the weapons, but figure “I better get one before I can’t get one,” Lanfear said.

The mass shooting in Florida — like others in recent times — has spurred a national outcry for stricter gun laws. “I’m a little worried about this one,” said the show’s promoter, David Petronis, of Mechanicville, N.Y. “The liberals are really pushing the kids.”

Petronis, who is in his 70s, has put on gun shows in New York and Vermont for decades. He hoped to draw 1,000 people in two days, but during the first six hours on Saturday, 800 people (admission for an adult was $8) had already walked through the doors.

It was largely a younger crowd. Since the 10-year ban on what Congress called “assault weapons” lapsed in 2004, the gun industry has targeted young males. They grew up playing Call of Duty and other war-themed video games.

Semiautomatic assault-style rifles with 30-round magazines came next. “The younger generation, that’s what they want,” said Mike Burt, of St. Johnsbury, Vt. “That’s what they’ve grown up with.”

A gun dealer and collector, Burt didn’t have any AR-15s — or anything close to it — for sale at his table. He specializes in vintage hunting rifles and muzzleloaders. As a longtime deer hunter (albeit not a very successful one), I was drawn to a century-old .303 Savage with a walnut stock for which Burt was asking $750.

He hadn’t found any takers at the show, and really didn’t expect to. “The market is not like it once was,” said Burt, a deer hunter for 60 years. “I see the beauty in a nice quality wooden stock. (Young people) want something with a high capacity.”

Vermont and New Hampshire allow assault-style rifles to be used for hunting. In Vermont, however, hunters can’t have a magazine capable of holding more than six rounds, plus the one in the gun’s chamber. (In New Hampshire, it’s five and one.)

With business slow, Burt wandered over to Keith Stern’s campaign table in a corner of the exhibition hall. Stern, probably best known for his family’s fruit and vegetable store in White River Junction, is a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Burt introduced himself. “I was a Phil Scott man, however, I may have to change my mind,” Burt told Stern. “I’m a gun guy.”

Scott, the state’s Republican governor, recently came out in support of stricter gun laws, after police arrested a Poultney, Vt., teen suspected of planning a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.

“We’re in Vermont,” Burt told Stern, who bills himself as a “conservative Constitutionalist” in literature he was handing out at the gun show. “You don’t try to take gun rights away from Vermonters.”

Burt told me that he doesn’t own an assault-style rifle and doesn’t care to. But he supports those who do. “We don’t need more laws,” he said. “We need more enforcement of the laws that we have.”

Walking around the small exhibition hall, which featured about 20 gun dealers, I didn’t hear nearly as much National Rifle Association rhetoric as I expected.

“I’m not sold on teachers having guns,” said personal trainer William Martin, 30, of Rutland. “There are other things we can do first. We have security guards and metal detectors in airports. What about schools?”

Lanfear, the Afghanistan war veteran, said he could support raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle to 21. “It’s already that way with handguns,” he said, adding that the feds also need to improve the screening of people with a history of mental illness before allowing them to purchase firearms.

As I was getting ready to leave, I came across a 29-year-old businesswoman who told me that her family owned five AR-15s. And they were in the market for more.

“We enjoy shooting guns,” she said.

For many law-abiding Vermonters who consider themselves gun enthusiasts, I guess that’s what it comes down to: To each their own.

And the rest of us will just have to live with the consequences.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.