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Why Arizonans Can Buy Guns Made In-State Free of Background Checks, and Other Issues in Gun Control

In the wake of a deadly shooting in Arizona, questions have surfaced about whether the type of weapon, concealed weapon permits and other gun control issues contributed to the incident.

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and more than a dozen of her constituents in Tucson this weekend has sparked criticism of Arizona’s lax gun control laws and renewed calls from some to tighten those restrictions. Six individuals were confirmed dead. Here’s our attempt to briefly break down a few of the issues at play:

Types of weapons available

In the Arizona case, the gun used by accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner was a Glock 19—a semiautomatic weapon with a 33-round magazine. The New York Times reported that this magazine is banned in six states and D.C., but not in Arizona. It was also previously illegal under a federal assault weapons ban that expired under the Bush administration in 2004, Salon reported:

Between 1994 and 2004 when the assault weapons ban was in effect, gun manufacturers such as Glock could not market handguns with high-capacity magazines. If the ban were still in effect, it's less likely that Loughner could have obtained a gun with a high-capacity magazine. Stores could legally only sell used high-capacity magazines at that time, and new magazines could not be manufactured.

President Bush backed the ban, and an amendment to extend it passed in the Senate in 2004 but was never voted on by the House.

With his high-capacity weapon, Loughner was able to fire 31 shots before needing to reload. He was stopped while trying to reload.

Who can obtain a gun

The federal government keeps a background-check database to prevent criminals and individuals deemed mentally unfit from gaining access to a weapon. The database, maintained by the FBI, is known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

But as the Christian Science Monitor reports, despite showing signs of mental instability, Loughner was still allowed to purchase a gun legally because he hadn’t been declared mentally unfit by a court or been committed to a mental institution.

And even if Loughner had qualified for inclusion in the database, the burden is still on each state to regularly share its mental health records with the federal database. As this Charlotte Observer editorial highlights, many states—including Arizona—are still slow to do so, despite a stronger push for states to do so after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007:

[T]he Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that Arizona has submitted only about 4,400 mental illness records out of an estimated total of 121,700. (North Carolina has submitted only 12,500 out of an estimated 330,000.)

What’s more, some states have tried to assert their sovereignty by finding a way around the background check system. Arizona, for instance, has a law that exempts guns made and kept in Arizona from federal regulations regarding registration and background checks, the Arizona Republic has reported. Similar legislation is being pushed by lawmakers in Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported today.

Where people can carry concealed weapons

There’s no federal law regarding permits to carry concealed weapons, but there are three states that don’t require a permit to do so. Last summer, Arizona became one of them, joining Alaska and Vermont.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday, guns are permitted almost everywhere in Arizona—with the exception of doctor’s offices and some private businesses:

The state rifle association lists restaurants that permit concealed weapons. Guns are permissible inside the state Capitol and many other public buildings.

State law permits gun owners to carry a concealed weapon into establishments that serve alcohol as long as the gun owner isn't imbibing. Concealed guns are permitted on school grounds while picking up or dropping off a child, as long as the weapon is unloaded and the gun owner remains in a vehicle.

The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest pro-gun lobbying group, posted the following statement on its Web site: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this senseless tragedy, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and their families during this difficult time. We join the rest of the country in praying for the quick recovery of those injured."

Asked whether the repeal of gun restrictions played a role in the shooting, the group’s spokesman told Politico: “Anything other than prayers for the victims and their families at this time would be inappropriate.”

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