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Fully-Auto Vs. Semi-Auto: The Dividing Line in Gun Control

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There isn't much difference between a fully automatic M-16 machine gun and the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, both of which are readily available for sale in Arizona.

Both shoot the same, high-powered .223-caliber ammo and can be loaded with large-capacity magazines of 30 rounds or more. Except for different internal workings that allow the fully auto mode in the M-16, they're the same gun.

The semi-automatic version isn't much less lethal, either -- that much is made clear by the Army's decision to use M-16s that fire semi-automatically in up to three-round bursts, rather than full-autos. Semi-auto fire can be more accurate than "spraying," the Army found.

The biggest difference, by far, is in the laws that apply to them.

The full-auto requires federal registration of the weapon, a $200 fee, fingerprinting and intensive background check. The turnaround time between applying for the license and buying the weapon runs from about 90 to 120 days.


The machine-gun owner must notify the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau in writing if he or she changes residences, and the firearm can't be sold privately. The ATF suggests carrying a carbon-copy of the machine gun registration at all times when transporting it to the shooting range or anywhere else.

On the other hand, the average customer could walk out of a Valley sporting goods store with the semi-automatic AR-15 in an hour or less. No license or registration is needed, though the buyer's name is run through a national database designed to block sales to convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill.

Thomas Mangan, ATF spokesman, says he's not aware of any federally licensed machine gun being used to commit a crime.

This lends support to the notion that strict gun control laws can prevent violent crimes.

Yet similar restrictions on semi-automatic weapons would clearly have a major effect on the firearms industry, firearms buyers and the right to bear arms.

One reason fully automatic weapons don't get used in crimes is because restrictions have taken them out of the hands of all but a few rich people. The only machine guns that can be sold legally to civilians in the United States were made before 1986. About 125,000 "transferable" full-autos exist in the country, Mangan says.

Naturally, the limited supply means a way jacked-up price: At one Scottsdale gun store we called, the cost of a fully-automatic M-16 was about $15,000.

The registration fee -- as minimal as it compared to the overall price of the weapon -- also seems to affect purchases, Mangan says. When ATF raised the fee, it saw a drop-off in the number of licenses purchased. [Clarification: A reader pointed out that Mangan's referring to a hike in the fee for a federal firearms license, which isn't required to buy a machine gun. The fee for the tax stamp for machine guns, the reader says, hasn't changed in years.) 

There are plenty of people with the means to buy an expensive toy like that, of course. Mangan estimates that an average of at least one machine gun a day is sold in Arizona. He's trying to obtain more precise stats for us.

A quick Google search shows AR-15s are on sale at one local store for as low as $769.

We think this comparison brings up some great questions: Is it logical to have such a dramatic difference in the law for such a relatively minor difference in a feature of guns? Are the requirements for machine guns too strict?

Or should AR-15 buyers (or, by extension, buyers of any high-powered, semi-automatic guns with high-capacity magazines) be held to the same high standards as M-16 buyers?


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