Healey's 2016 crackdown on copycat assault weapons took those firearms off market

Various versions of an AR-15 are shown above. On Wednesday, Dick's Sporting Goods announced it will immediately stop selling assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, and will only sell to those 21 and older.

At A & J Sporting Goods in Housatonic, co-owner Joe Aberdale still stocks the "copycat" assault-style rifles that are now banned from sale in Massachusetts.

He can only sell them to licensed members of law enforcement, or ship them to out-of-state buyers in a careful transaction monitored by the state, he said.

This is how it is since state Attorney General Maura Healey cracked down on the sale of these weapons July 20, 2016.

While a state assault weapon ban in 1998 took name-brand semiautomatics like the Colt AR-15 and the Kalashnikov AK-47 off the market, semiautomatic assault rifles with similar operating systems were still being sold in a sort of firearms loophole, as manufacturers made tweaks for state compliance.

Aberdale said those copies "follow the same pattern, look and style of operation" as the real thing.

So, the month after a mass shooting at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, Healey issued an enforcement directive to the state's 350 gun dealers that clarified what constitutes a copycat weapon, in the hopes of reducing access to what she called "combat-style" guns, though people could keep those purchased before July 20, 2016.

Healey also said that the sale of certain types of augmenting devices like bump stocks and rotary devices for installation in trigger housings are also off-limits.

Basically, any gun part that can also go into a banned weapon can't be sold.

These semiautomatics and accessories are coming under another round of national scrutiny since Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 to gun down 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school this month.

As authorities continue to investigate Cruz's shooting spree, the national gun control debate has hit a new chord of urgency.

Amid rhetoric and mudslinging, there have come some surprises, like the announcement Wednesday by national chain Dick's Sporting Goods that it would stop selling assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, and will only sell to those 21 and older.

Guns, people or both

Massachusetts has some of the tightest gun regulations in the nation, and the lowest rate of death by firearms in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it wasn't that long ago that Healey's new assault-style weapons directive enraged the state's gun advocates and triggered litigation by the Gun Owners' Action League, the state's National Rifle Association affiliate, four gun dealers and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Conn., the site of another mass school shooting.

Gun Owners' Action League spokesman James Wallace could not be reached Wednesday. But, according to Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, that litigation is moving slowly.

Like Bazinet's organization, which, in a statement, said it was disappointed by the decision made by Dick's, some Berkshire County gun sellers say the problem isn't guns.

Tom Decker, co-owner of Pete's Gun Shop in Adams, grew irate at the mere mention of the Parkland school massacre.

"This is a behavior issue and a society issue," he said. "Tell the government to do their job and have the FBI completely do their job instead of missing clues of what was given to them, something they've done repeatedly."

Aberdale said it's the person, not the gun, that is responsible for a killing.

"It's just like an automobile, just like a cellphone when people are texting and driving," he said. "Those aren't the responsible items. Mental health is the main issue."

But, despite the innocence that many attribute to guns, in 2016 Healey doubled down on the copycat weapons ban, which also included five semiautomatic pistols.

She wanted to curb circulation — her office said that, in Massachusetts, about 10,000 of these assault weapon copies had been sold in 2015.

In a statement, Healey had said the weapons are designed to kill efficiently.

"These deadly assault weapons were designed for military use," she said. "They are meant to kill people in a very short amount of time. They do not belong in civilian hands."

Shopping at Dick's

Lyn Engel of Albany, N.Y., agrees.

Engel was spending a girls' day out with her 19 year-old daughter, Samantha, on Wednesday. She intended to shop for a new pair of sneakers, and when she heard Wednesday morning that Dick's Sporting Goods in Pittsfield took a stand against assault rifles, she decided to spend her money there.

"That's why I'm here," she said. "I wanted to support them."

Samantha Engel works at the Colonie Center mall in Albany. Three days ago, a threat of a possible gunman led to a lockdown at the mall. It turned out that there was no gunman.

"As far as I knew, there was a shooter," she said. "I shouldn't have to feel afraid at school or work."

Samantha and Lyn asked The Eagle to print a shortened version of their last name to partially conceal their identities.

"People can be so weird about the gun thing," Lyn Engel said.

But Deanna Charron, 42, of Lanesborough was torn about restricting the sale of semiautomatic weapons.

She said that every store, including Dick's, has a right to sell or not sell what it would like, but it's the laws that need to change.

"I have my license to carry," Charon said on her way out of the sporting goods store, "but I think regulation has to happen."

Charron recently moved to Lanesborough from Worcester, where there was a wait list for more than a year to get a license to carry, she said.

Charron said she got her license to carry in Lanesborough in about three weeks.

She decided to arm herself, and take gun safety and shooting courses, after moving to the "country."

"I have a lot of animals," she said. "I wanted the ability not to feel helpless."

But Charron said that while neither she nor anyone she knows would likely ever use an assault rifle, she feels she should have the right to, provided that there is increased regulation.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is an advocate of universal background checks.

Pignatelli represents a district that includes plenty of gun lovers and sportsman club members. He said these groups, along with the NRA, "could be the heroes in this discussion if they get ahead of the universal background checks and mental health issues."

"How does someone get 39 calls about a particular person and he can still go out and buy a gun?" Pignatelli said, referring to Cruz. "We have to fix that. A universal background check is nothing to be afraid of, and I think it would be fair. If you got nothing to hide, you got nothing to worry about."

Pignatelli said the onus should be on Congress to establish universal laws.

"State-by-state solutions are difficult," he said, noting all the guns that enter the state illegally, despite the ban here.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz contributed to this story

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871