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Gun Manufacturers Say Assault Weapons Aren't A High Pay-Off Target


Joining me from Las Vegas, where he's attending the annual SHOT Show, a firearms industry trade convention, is retired Army Major General D. Allen Youngman. He is now the executive director of the Defense Small Arms Advisory Council. Welcome to the program, General Youngman.

DEAN ALLEN YOUNGMAN: Thank you, Robert. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: You've taken part in some of the meetings with Vice President Biden in recent weeks. Your organization is made up of companies that manufacture weapons both for military and civilian purchase. First, generally, what do you think of what the president proposes on military-style guns?

YOUNGMAN: Well, I thought it was interesting that he didn't lead with that. He'd led with the idea of making the National Instant Check System broader and more accessible to those who want to determine if the person they're selling a firearm to is legally prohibited from buying or owning one.

In terms of the assault weapons ban, obviously, we need to see what the details look like. It's a little bit kind of a retro thing. If you look at the ban in 1994, I think the dominant factor in Congress not taking it up again is the fact that as the National Institute of Justice's 2004 study showed there was just no particular benefit from it.

SIEGEL: You spent a career in the military. Do you see legitimate uses for AK-47 and M16 derivatives in civilian hands?

YOUNGMAN: Robert, I think we have to start in that issue by looking at, you know, the fundamental nature of firearms. At one level or another, all firearms were designed for war.

SIEGEL: But there are boundaries here. For example, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is a weapon designed for war. There seems to be a broad consensus that it shouldn't be available to any consumer to buy in the country. When we come down to the semiautomatic weapons derived from combat rifles, can one draw a line that excludes those from the consumer market?

YOUNGMAN: Well, I think there is some hint that the answer to that question was in the Supreme Court decision Heller v. District of Columbia. I think Justice Scalia talked in terms of those that are unusual, uncommon as opposed to those that are in common usage. Our meeting this morning, we did an informal estimate of, you know, how many semiautomatic, magazine-fed rifles do we think there are out there currently in this country. Depending on how you define it, the answer is probably somewhere between four and eight million. And that obviously means that they are very, you know, very common. These are not unusual weapons.

SIEGEL: But your members sell these weapons in the U.S. consumer market. There's a pitch for them, obviously. There's advertising for them. Are they needed? Are they necessary for some people?

YOUNGMAN: Are they necessary? I think you open an element of the dialogue there that just really doesn't help, you know? Somebody who is going to - you ask them that and they're going to say, whether I need it or not is no one else's business. The question is can I own it responsibly, legally? Am I hurting anybody with it? And if the answer is no, then that tends to end their participation in the debate, you know? Four to eight million of them are already out there. How many are used in crimes? Well, if you look at last year, some 6,000 firearms homicides.

The FBI figure for 2011 was 323 homicides were accomplished with any form of rifle, semiautomatic or otherwise. You know, that's cold comfort to the parents of Sandy Hook, obviously. There's nothing we can say to them that would, you know, take away the hurt. But you start looking at society-wide solutions, is that a high payoff target?

SIEGEL: What do you say to a listener who hears you and says the gun manufacturers on your council, they don't care about the Second Amendment. What they really care about is they don't want to see a market of 300 million guns in private hands in the U.S. start shrinking because their sales and profits will shrink. This is just about money. It's about business.

YOUNGMAN: Well, I think we can anticipate some people are going to say that. And honestly, there's a couple of ways to look at it. One is that our primary customers are the United States military. And our number one goal as an industry is to ensure that they have the best available small arms to employ in defense of this country.

But the second point is that we, you know, we're citizens too. We're parents. We're grandparents. We have the same shared sense of devastation after Sandy Hook. In fact, that's why I accepted the invitation to go to the White House. We were hoping to hear new and more effective ideas on how we can reduce that.

One of the points of discussion with the vice president was that he had said he had met with the other side the day before. And we took issue with that. You know, there is no other side in this debate, and we all would like to see effective means of keeping guns out of the wrong hands. We may just disagree on what, you know, what those most effective means are.

SIEGEL: Well, Major General Youngman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

YOUNGMAN: OK. Well, thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: D. Allen Youngman is executive director of the Defense Small Arms Advisory Council. That's a group which represents gun manufacturers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.