Birmingham, Alabama -- On the day after Christmas, the wall racks at Hoover Tactical Firearms were almost bare; holiday customers had bought nearly everything. At the store's shooting range, anyone wanting to rent an AR-15 or similar rifle for target practice would be disappointed. There were a few rifles to borrow but no ammunition -- all sold out.
"There has been an unprecedented run on all of our AR platforms and 30-round magazines," says Robert Hawthorne, a firearms instructor at Hoover Tactical. "Ammunition -- all of the 5.56 and .223 is completely gone. Demand for the firearms and for the training has been through the roof. We've scheduled additional classes."
The scene has been repeated across the country in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Many buyers fear new federal gun control measures will ban the sale of guns like the AR-15 -- the weapon used in the Newtown killings -- along with what are known as high-capacity magazines. So they're buying now, some for their own use, some to resell when the price presumably goes up.
I visited the store to try out some of the most controversial weapons, and since the range had no ammunition for an AR-15, I chose a submachine gun called a KRISS Vector Super V with a 30-cartridge magazine. (For followers of Washington scandal, it was the type of weapon Paula Broadwell endorsed and advertised before she became better known for having an affair with Gen. David Petraeus.)
The KRISS, which has a boxy, high-tech design, is an extraordinarily powerful weapon. It fires a .45-caliber round. (That's why ammunition for it was still available after all the AR-15 ammo was sold.) It's a big round; In videos on YouTube, aficionados and experts talk about the KRISS' "stopping power" should the owner find himself in a "s--t hits the fan situation." Some of the videos show the gun being fired in fully automatic mode, spraying about 20 rounds per second.
Perhaps because it looks so cool and paramilitary, the KRISS has been featured in some of the violent video games that have also been discussed in the wake of Newtown and other mass killings.
At the range, one could select a variety of targets: traditional circles, human figures, a caricature of Osama bin Laden. I picked one called Bad Man, which was a basic human outline with brightly colored target areas.
Although I haven't shot in years, I did some serious damage to Bad Man, sending .45 after .45 into the small green circle inside his red midsection, plus a few to the head. Rather than any great skill on my part, my sharp-shooting can be attributed to the efficiency of the KRISS. In addition to being hugely powerful, it is remarkably easy to shoot, with little recoil for a gun of its caliber.
When I grew up, in Alabama, our family had a single-shot, bolt-action .22-caliber rifle, a nine-shot .22 revolver and a 20 gauge shotgun -- a pretty common lineup of home firearms. It's hard to imagine weapons more different from the KRISS.
Should guns like the KRISS be legal to buy? Or, at least, should they be harder to buy and their magazine size limited to, say, 10 rounds? Talking with relatives and friends, all of whom own firearms, I didn't sense much opposition to limiting the size of magazines. Nor did I sense much opposition to imposing the same sort of background checks on people who buy guns at shows as are currently imposed on people who buy them at licensed dealers like Hoover Tactical Firearms.
As far as banning some types of guns altogether, many point out that beyond their military styling, "assault weapons" are basically semi-automatic rifles like zillions of other semi-automatic rifles with wooden stocks and a traditional look. They're the same guns. Even so, I didn't sense much opposition to banning the sale of some types of rifles.
But at the same time, nobody believed those measures would actually address the problem of mass shootings. Indeed, what has been remarkable about the post-Newtown debate is the degree to which gun control advocates have passionately pushed proposals that would not have prevented the Newtown shootings and ridiculed ones, like stationing armed guards in schools, that might have worked.
In the end, fixing the problem will have to involve dealing more decisively with crazy people like the Newtown shooter, as well as other mass killers. And that will require entirely different measures than regulating guns.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.