Last Thursday, Jarrad Stanton climbed out of a mud-spattered Nissan Pathfinder at an old rock quarry in the Tillamook State Forest. The 27-year-old Portland contractor strolled to the quarry's edge and shouldered his semi-automatic AK-47. Down in the pit, a red plastic coffee can floated on a muddy, trash-ringed puddle.
The AK's concussive roar shattered the silence. Ten seconds later, the coffee can was no more. The puddle was a few inches shallower, water having splashed out on all sides. And Stanton was out 30 rounds.
Three days before, a 10-year-old federal ban on assault weapons expired. Democrat John Kerry raised campaign Cain about it all week. Kerry claims the ban's demise makes America less safe and proves George W. Bush would rather placate gun nuts than govern sensibly.
It's safe to say Kerry's argument was not crafted with Jarrad Stanton's vote in mind. Like many Second Amend-ment enthusiasts in the Portland area, he was glad to see the sun set on Title XI of 1994's Federal Violent Crime Control Act, which banned 19 types of assault weapons.
Not that he thought it meant much.
In fact, Stanton--along with a number of Portland sportsmen, gun-shop owners and cops--thinks Kerry's effort to stir up swing-voter outrage is based on a bogus premise. The ban, they say, was mostly cosmetic. If you wanted a semi-automatic assault weapon, you could get one--legally.
Take Stanton's AK. Under the law, it was illegal to sell such a gun with more than two features from a list including a bayonet lug, collapsible stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor and magazine capable of holding more than 10 cartridges. Manufacturers scaled down magazine capacity or stripped away other illegal accessories--and went right on selling guns.
Meanwhile, anyone who wanted banned features could exploit the law's grandfather clause, which allowed possession of any gun or accessory manufactured before 1994. A legal market for pre-ban weapons thrived.
"I got mine three or four years back at a gun show," explains Stanton, who uses a .40-caliber handgun for self-defense, the AK for stress relief. "It was $475 plus tax--$519 in all. I can get 1,000 rounds for $109, and I can probably shoot them off in about half an hour."
The ban thus did little to dampen interest in assault weapons, according to local gun merchants. Royd Jackson, owner of the Gun Broker in Clackamas, says demand has increased for "AR-15-style guns" similar to those used by U.S. military forces. (Jackson notes that prices--$700 to $1,500--have dropped considerably since the ban's end.)
Warren Lacasse of Southeast Foster Road's Gun Room says he, too, has seen an increased demand, though he couldn't care less. "We're not interested in thugs," he says. "We cater to the hunting end." (Lacasse often dumbfounds customers looking for "pre-ban stuff" by handing them a replica .50 caliber 1812 black-powder rifle. He calls it "the original assault rifle.")
Like gun owners and sellers, local police say banning sales did little to make Portland streets safer.
"In the vast majority of cases, guns are obtained through theft or other such means," says Portland Police Officer Greg Pashley. According to Pashley, most crimes are committed with handguns, which are easier to conceal.
"The tactics and methods we use won't change because this law went into sunset," he says. "Whether they have one shot, 20 or 30, you have to approach situations carefully."
Up in the Tillamook, Stanton voiced a very similar sentiment. Just as he ran out of ammo, an SUV pulled up. Out jumped four high-schoolers clad in a bizarre mix of flip-flops, tactical vests, Vietnam-era bush hats and antiquated ammo belts. They packed a 9 mm pistol, a chirpy little .22 deer rifle and an enormous old bolt-action .30-06. Stanton nodded politely and made a little small talk as the teens set up their target, a female mannequin torso covered in duct tape.
But when the guy in flip-flops started waving around the .30-06, Stanton decided it was time to pack his guns and leave.
"My dad was a Marine," he said. "I am religious about safety."