Rifle ban's real impact may be dud

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When Kirk Haldeman wrestled a gun from the man firing it in a Ligonier Borough tavern in 2011, he came in contact with something uncommon in Western Pennsylvania: someone using a military-style rifle to kill.

The gunman, Stephen Fromholz, 43, of San Antonio, had pistols in his car. But he grabbed his AR-15 rifle to settle the argument he was having with a fellow patron in Fat Daddy's Place, and used it to kill Donald Holler, 65, of Cook before Haldeman jumped him and ended the violence. Fromholz is serving a life term in prison.

Haldeman, 53, of Ligonier doesn't care to engage in the debate over military weapons and gun restrictions that continues in Washington and elsewhere.

“Regardless of what weapons you make available or don't, people are going to find a way to get them,” he said. “People intent on harming others will find their way around the law.”

As the Senate returns from Easter recess this week to take up measures such as universal background checks for gun purchases, President Obama is pushing to include a vote on what politicians often call assault weapons. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who crafted a 1994 weapons ban that expired in 2004, proposes banning 157 rifles, pistols, shotguns and belt-fed semiautomatic firearms, an idea that has Congress sharply divided.

An analysis by the Tribune-Review of gun-related homicides shows that such a ban would have had little impact on the number of killings in Western Pennsylvania over the past three years.

Most were committed with handguns.

Data from Allegheny, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties found that of the 245 people who died in shootings from 2010 through 2012, 15 were killed with military-style weapons — 12 in Allegheny County and three in Westmoreland County.

“I don't believe (personally) that the proposed legislation would have much of an impact on the number of homicides with firearms,” said Robert Levine, a firearms and ballistics expert with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. “Individuals so inclined to carry and commit a homicide with a firearm would use whatever is available.”

Allegheny County accounted for 210 of the gun homicides, and police agencies there collected 271 firearms in those cases during the three-year period. Ninety percent were handguns, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.

“It shows that a wide variety of weapons of all sorts are widely available,” said Dr. Karl Williams, the county's chief medical examiner. “But they are mostly handguns.”

Pittsburgh police see few military-style weapons used in deadly crimes, said Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki.

“For the past few years, there were between two and four homicides involving assault rifles,” Stangrecki said. “The majority of homicides are committed with handguns.”

The debate picked up after a gunman with an AR-15 and high-capacity magazines killed 20 children and six adults in less than five minutes on Dec. 12 in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The effort to expand background checks for all gun purchases, even private ones, stands a better chance of reducing homicides than banning weapons, said John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a policy group in Washington.

“If you close loopholes for private transactions (such as gun shows), then that is a lot of people on the margins who don't get guns, as most guns used in street crimes do not come from licensed dealers,” Roman said. “The assault-weapon stuff is about protecting police officers and reducing deaths in mass shootings. I don't think it will be framed that way, but that is likely what it would do.”

The Feinstein list would cover some of the weapons assailants used in high-profile killings in Western Pennsylvania in 2009. That includes the rifle Richard Poplawski of Stanton Heights used to kill three Pittsburgh police officers at his home and the one Ronald Robinson of Homewood used to kill Penn Hills Officer Michael Crawshaw eight months later. Both men are in prison.

Feinstein also recommends limiting magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, which George Sodini of Scott used when he killed four people and wounded nine at the LA Fitness in Collier in August 2009. He unloaded 36 shots from two pistols equipped with 30-round magazines before killing himself. The guns he used are not on the proposed ban list.

“It will be a question for all 100 members of the Senate to ask themselves about whether or not they think that voting for and supporting an assault weapons ban would actually do something to reduce gun violence in communities all across the country,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a briefing last week.

In the Fat Daddy's shooting, Fromholz used a rifle outfitted with three magazines taped together to hold 75 rounds. He chose it instead of either of the pistols inside his vehicle, Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha said.

“It could have been any gun,” Bacha said. “It just happened to be an assault weapon.”

As for Haldeman, he's glad Fromholz used the rifle instead of a pistol. It was easier for him to see and easier for him to grab and leverage away from people, he said.

“Had he had a handgun, I might have been shot.”

He added, “My personal feeling is that the reaction to the Newtown tragedy is the president and Congress feel they need to act, so they are trying to pass new gun control laws just so they can say we did something.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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