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Gun Fight: What defines an ‘assault weapon’

It often takes just one or two syllables for the terrible images to come to mind: Columbine, Aurora, Planned Parenthood. Those are simply a few of the infamous mass shootings that have plagued our state; in every instance, the gunman used a military-style "assault weapon" to kill.

The divisive question remains – should assault-style weapons be legal or not?

Looking at data from 1981-2017, so-called "assault weapons" were responsible for 86 percent of deaths in mass shootings in the United States. 

So what’s the justification for owning these military-style semi-automatic weapons?

For Mel Bernstein, the answer is simple.

"See the big smile on my face? That's why we shoot machine guns here,” said the Colorado Springs gun-store owner.

Bernstein is a Class-7 gun dealer, meaning he can also manufacture his own guns. He can also own fully-automatic machine guns that he can rent to customers who can shoot them supervised at one of his seven ranges.

"This one here's a Glock-17 that I converted to fully-automatic. And you won't believe how fast this shoots. It actually shoots almost 750 bullets a minute,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein, also known as “Dragon Man,” has been dubbed the most armed man in the country.

"In this store, we have 1,900 and in my museum, I have over 3,000 working weapons,” he said. "I get a bang out of it," laughed the Vietnam War veteran.

If you want to buy a legal gun – especially a semi-automatic gun  – in southern Colorado, you’ve likely heard of “Dragon Man.”

"Being an American, a law-abiding citizen, you really should be able to own anything you want with the right paperwork,” he said.

Bernstein believes the Second Amendment should be protected, and that self-defense is also a main factor in his stance for gun ownership.

"Tell you the truth, there'd be a lot less crime if everybody carried a weapon,” he said.

 “’John’ over here has to do the background check when he buys a gun, and get approved. ‘George,’ he laughs at this. This is a joke. Because he buys his guns from criminals. The more laws they make, they're really for law-abiding citizens. Criminals are going to be here forever," Bernstein said.

So which guns are currently legal and which are not?

Fully-automatic weapons, or “machine guns,” can fire multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger. These guns are illegal, unless they’re older than 1986, in which case you can own them because they’re grandfathered in. However, you can only own fully-automatic guns that are older than 33 years only after passing a rigorous background check that can take up to a year, and after registering the gun federally.

Semi-automatic weapons fire as fast as one can pull the trigger, one bullet at a time. Anyone in Colorado over the age of 18 can own a semi-automatic gun as long as they pass a standard background check.

And high-capacity magazine clips? They can’t hold more than 15 rounds. Anything more is illegal.

But how does one define an “assault weapon?”

“What they're trying to get to is semi-automatic, magazine-fed firearms that function similar to the military's firearms,” said Dudley Brown.

Brown is the founder of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a pro-Second Amendment organization that is part of the National Association for Gun Rights. His group is leading the charge against Colorado’s magazine ban that limits clips to just 15 rounds. The state’s Supreme Court is looking at their case this month.

Brown believes every person in America should have an AR-15 hanging in their closet. He also says self-defense is the main motivator behind protecting assault-style weapons.

"An M-16 is a pretty natural firearm, and I don't think there should be any restrictions, no,” he said.

"The unintended consequences of banning firearms like assault weapons are that you stop law-abiding citizens from using it as self-defense against criminals,” Brown said. “If experts can use those firearms to defend other people in society, why shouldn't you, or I, or the single mother who wants to defend her kids?"

According to the FBI, in 2017, handguns were involved in the majority (64%) of U.S. gun murders. Rifles – the category that includes many guns commonly referred to as “assault weapons”– were involved in just 4% of homicides.

However, six of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history happened this decade. On average, one mass shooting—defined as an event in which four or more people are killed or injured with a gun—happens every day in our country.  When assault-style weapons are used, often with high capacity clips, shootings result in 155 percent more people shot and 47 percent more people killed, according to Every Town For Gun Safety.

"We want to make it harder for bad guys to get guns. That's just flat, common sense,” said John Morse.

Morse is a former Colorado Senator who represented southern Colorado. He was voted out of office in 2013 after supporting the passage of tougher gun laws.

"Assault weapons are meant for the battlefield and maybe for a few police officers on the street. When I was with the Colorado Springs Police Department, we had to write a memo every time we took that gun out of its rack, unless we were taking it out to qualify with it. That's how dangerous that gun was,” said Morse. “Assault weapons should be banned without question."

One reason many are calling for an assault weapons ban is because our nation actually had one before.

The Clinton administration, with the backing of a Democratic congress, passed an “assault weapons” ban in 1994, officially called the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. However, it expired just ten years later.

"It wasn't renewed because there was a Republican congress and a Republican presidency,” said Trent Steidley, Professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver.

“The Federal Assault Weapons ban was passed with a Democratic congress and a Democratic president. Ten years go by, the Democrats lose control of the federal government. The Republicans were not interested in picking it up so they just let it expire,” he said.

David Kopel is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver who also provided more insight into the ban’s expiration.

"One reason it wasn't renewed was because when congress enacted the ban in 1994, it told the Department of Justice to conduct studies on the effectiveness of the ban.  And they hired a left-leaning but high-quality think-tank -- the Urban Institute -- to do several studies. And in the end, there was no evidence that this law was saving any lives,” said Kopel.

However, Morse feels the ban did save lives.

"I think absolutely it helped. Although I also think the gun manufacturers did an amazing job of getting around it. So those that wrote it didn't do a good job of actually banning assault weapons,” said Morse.

So did the assault weapons ban save lives or not? According to the numbers, the views are mixed.

According to a National Institute of Justice study, assault weapons were only used in roughly 8% of violent crimes from 1994-2004. That number hasn’t risen since.  

However, some believe the effects from the ban were minimized because assault-style weapons and large capacity magazines produced before 1994 were grandfathered in, and those who owned them could still sell them after the ban. Some gun companies even ramped up production in the months leading up to the ban, creating a surplus of assault style weapons for the open market. Also, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, two-thirds of the 8.5 million AR- or AK- style rifles that entered the civilian market between 1990 and 2012 became available after 2004.

There are also researchers like Louis Klarevas, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College who wrote Rampage Nation. His book examines U.S. mass shootings. His research claims that deaths from mass shootings dropped 25 percent under the ban. And deaths from assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in those shootings dropped 54 percent.

Since 1994, Colorado has certainly had its fair share of tragic shootings, including the Planned Parenthood shooting in 2016 that killed three people and injured nine others.

"And you know you see a lot of these situations that happen around the country, but to have it happen on your home turf, you know it really affects all of you,” said Jake Skifstad.

Skifstad is a former Colorado Springs police officer who was a first responder during the Planned Parenthood shooting.

"I'll never forget that day, going down there and knowing his weapon of choice was a rifle. And I'll never forget responding down there that day, those officers on-scene, absolutely true heroes, putting their lives on the line for strangers. They had no protection against that threat, that rifle,” he said.

Gunmen with military-style rifles are a realistic threat that officers need to be ready to face. Skifstad feels all law enforcement needs to be prepared for the worst.

"I do think it's fair,” he said. “Because we take an oath to protect our community from whatever threat …it could be a handgun. It could be a rifle. It could be a vehicle. It could be a knife, a bomb, all kinds of different stuff. Law enforcement is going to respond to all of those."

The El Paso County Sheriff feels the same way.

"It is the changing nature of the business, that we have to be confronted with that. We train for it and prepare for it,” said El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder.

Elder has been an outspoken supporter of the Second Amendment, despite the fact that one in five law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty from 2016-2017 were killed with an assault-style weapon.

"So the question is, does the fact that the second amendment of the constitution trump safety of public law enforcement? Absolutely it does,” said Elder.

“Our job is to protect people's rights that are afforded under the second amendment and under the remaining amendments of the constitution."

And it’s the second amendment – the belief that anyone has a right to keep and bear arms, despite the type of guns – that justifies owning assault style weapons for many in Colorado.

"We think that it just gives the citizens its right to defend themselves in any manner they please,” said Rex Kehrli, president of RK Gun Shows.

"The right to self-defense, and the big reason is to protect us from a tyrannical government,” said Robert Holmes of Whistling Pines Gun Club.

Local News

Josh Helmuth

Josh is an anchor for Good Morning Colorado. Learn more about Josh here.



  1. I own assault rifles (sic) not for hunting but to keep my self and family free from a tyrannical Government. Just ask the people of Hong Kong if it is a good idea to have the same type of weapons that are being used against you.

  2. “They can’t hold more than 15 rounds. Anything more is illegal. ”

    I can tell you didn’t do your research on the laws. That is not what the law says. I have many magazines that hold over 15 rounds and they are 1000000% legal here in Colorado without any special license or paperwork.
    Facts are fun when you get them right. Not skewing them to match your agenda….. ohh wait what did I expect… my bad.

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