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The Role Extended Magazines Are Playing In The Gun Control Debate


Police say the gunman who killed 12 people in Virginia Beach on Friday fired dozens of rounds and had extended magazines for his guns. They are used often in mass shootings. NPR's Martin Kaste examines the role these accessories play in the gun control debate.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's not known yet how many rounds the attacker fired on Friday, but apparently, it was a lot. Well into the double digits is how Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera put it.


JAMES CERVERA: I can tell you that it was a long gun battle between those four officers and that suspect. We recovered a .45-caliber handgun with multiple extended magazines that were empty at the time.

KASTE: An extended magazine is basically a metal sleeve that holds more bullets than a gun's normal capacity. And the question is, in a fight with police, how much of an advantage does this give a shooter?


KASTE: That's Thor Eells, a retired SWAT team commander, now executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association. He says, yes, an extended magazine lets you shoot longer before having to reload. But the thing is with modern handguns, reloading doesn't really take much time.

EELLS: The practical world suggests to us that to do a reload, particularly in a semi-automatic type of weapon, that that really is very, very minimal.

KASTE: Others disagree. David Chipman was an ATF special agent for 25 years. Now he's a senior policy adviser for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Chipman says this attachment can make a fumbling amateur more deadly.

DAVID CHIPMAN: Most shooters are not trained like operators, like law enforcement or military. And it does take a lot of practice to be able to exchange magazines during an active shooting.

KASTE: Extended magazines have been used in some of the worst shootings of recent years, including Sandy Hook. And gun control advocates have long argued for limits. There were federal restrictions on ammunition-feeding systems, but those expired in 2004. And gun rights advocates, such as Michael Hammond, have been working to keep it that way.

MICHAEL HAMMOND: We killed an effort to federally regulate them in 2013.

KASTE: He's with Gun Owners of America. He defends extended magazines partly because he says they can be valuable for self-defense. Hammond recalls stories of Korean shopkeepers defending their property during the LA riots with rifles that had very obvious extended magazines.

HAMMOND: Their shops weren't burned down, their families weren't killed because the people who would've otherwise burned down their neighborhood were intimidated by the physical look of the firearms which they had in their hands.

KASTE: But he thinks the gun control groups' effort to restrict firearms attachments, whether its magazines, bump stocks or noise suppressors, is really all about politics.

HAMMOND: It's an effort by them to put points on the board. It's an effort by them to use these horrific tragedies in order to demonstrate that they're making political progress.

KASTE: In the absence of federal rules, a few states have restricted extended magazines. But in March, a federal judge struck down the most high-profile of those state bans in California. The judge said the magazines qualify as arms, and as such, they're protected by the Second Amendment. Hammond welcomes this ruling, and he hopes that the new conservative tilt to the Supreme Court will further reinforce the right to own guns, as well as gun attachments.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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