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Experts explain appeal of high-powered rifles

ATF agents say popular rifles are accurate from distance

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Deadly ambush attacks on police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas both involved suspects armed with high-powered rifles -- similar to an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Manufacturing of the AR-15 type rifle is booming, particularly in Florida, the I-TEAM has learned.

Gun production is up 250 percent in the United States since 2004, and manufacturing of AR-15 type semi-automatic rifles is up 200 percent in the same time period.

The bullets fired by those types of semi-automatic rifles can penetrate most bulletproof vests worn by law enforcement officers.

That's why military personnel and some SWAT teams use vests with a ceramic insert, but those vests are not the standard.

Federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the I-TEAM that high-powered rifles intrigue both gun enthusiasts and criminals because they are remarkably accurate from a distance.

“This little Glock here, that barrel is so short, it's not going to be accurate past 20 to 30 yards. That's the other reason people use rifles,” ATF Senior Special Agent Brian MacCarthy said. “That's going to be accurate at more than 100 yards. I'm going to be more likely to hit or kill whatever my target is, whether it be a deer or, in Dallas, it was a police officer.”

MacCarthy has spent 17 years with the ATF and said there is a higher market for the AR-15 style rifle in Jacksonville and elsewhere.

“Every time people think a semi-automatic assault weapon ban may be passed, they go out and buy these weapons,” MacCarthy said.

That ban was passed under former President Bill Clinton in 1994 and expired in 2004.

President Barack Obama pushed for gun reform in 2013, after a 20-year-old gunman opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adults, but the legislation failed.

Obama renewed his call for gun law changes after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last month -- the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

That tragedy was followed more recently by ambush killings of eight police officers in two weeks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Despite those events, MacCarthy and ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Trevor Velinor said officers will still respond when called.

“That's the job we signed up for,” MacCarthy said.

“Law enforcement is a calling,” said Velinor, who worked the Pulse shooting. “We believe in protecting and serving... and doing what's right, every single time, and so it's a good time to be in law enforcement.”

MacCarthy said he and five other officers once arrested a suspect armed with an AR-15 type gun, who could have killed them all during a predawn standoff in some woods.

MacCarthy said he remembers shaking the suspect's hand after he was safely apprehended and thanking him for not killing the agents.

Under Florida and Georgia laws, semi-automatic rifles do not have to be registered, so it's impossible to know how many are in the area.

Gun store manager sees spike in sales after shootings gain national attention

Every time a shooting gains national attention, a manager of a local gun store said there's a spike in sales.

Investigators said former Marine Gavin Long opened fire with an AR-15 type gun, killing three officers in Baton Rouge Sunday.

VIDEO: Spike in gun sales following shootings

After the ambush Sunday, Damon Gray, the sales manager at On Target Sports in Orange Park, said they saw a familiar trend continue.

"We'll see an increase of demand. And shortly thereafter, we'll see a big decrease in supply. Sometimes the price will go up, sometimes it will stay the same," Gray said.

It's not just firearm purchases that are up. Federal background checks that go along with them are also on the rise.

Last month, the FBI conducted more than 2.1 million background checks, compared to 1.5 million in June 2015.

In December, the San Bernardino massacre led to more than 3 million background checks that month and more than 23 million for the entire year -- setting a record.

Gray said the reason for the rush to buy guns after the shootings depends on the individual buyer. 

"We've heard things, you know. My friends have them or shot one at the range last weekend, to, I believe, they may be banned and I may not be able to purchase one in the future. So they'll come in as first-time buyers," Gray said.

The FBI conducts background checks every time someone tries to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer.

The last time a spike occurred was after the Pulse massacre in Orlando on June 12.

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.