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The Giffords Gun Clip: How A 'Weapon Of Mass Destruction' Became 'The Weapon Of Choice'

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WASHINGTON -- Is there a good reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun?

This is the question being asked in the wake of the shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. over the weekend. The suspect, Jared Loughner, allegedly used a high-capacity 33-round magazine in his Glock-19 pistol. Without the need to reload as quickly, the shooter was able to effectively hold bystanders at bay, keeping them from intervening until 20 people had already been shot.

Now, with six dead and more than a dozen injured over the weekend, the few vocal gun-control advocates left in Congress are turning the political spotlight on those high-capacity clips and magazines. In the House, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was killed and son severely injured by a gunman in 1993, said she plans to introduce legislation that would limit their availability.

"They are weapons of mass destruction," she told The Huffington Post Monday, "and they've become the weapon of choice."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), another fierce gun-control advocate, is working to introduce similar legislation in the upper chamber. "The only reason to have 33 bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly," Lautenberg said in a statement.

Close followers of gun-control policy expect these bills to change little, however. Debates over gun rights have become politically one-sided, and criminology experts say that there is little evidence tying high-capacity clips to massive shooting sprees.

"Banning it would be almost totally irrelevant," said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University. "It would be the mass shootings where it would make a difference, but there are probably only two mass shootings in the history of the U.S. where it could have made a difference. This [Arizona] is one of two incidents."

Besides lack of causation, however, McCarthy and Lautenberg may find themselves limited by the fact that high-capacity magazines have become, for the gun lobby, almost as cherished as the right to bear arms itself, and legislation restricting their use is likely to bring the full force of that lobby down on Congress.

"Everybody is petrified of the NRA," said McCarthy.

The history of high-capacity clips and magazines begins somewhere in the early 20th century. John Browning, the famed U.S. firearms designer, developed the basic concept of a magazine that could fire more rounds without reloading. The Browning Hi-Powered gun first made its debut in 1935, nine years after his death, and used a staggered two-column magazine that held 13 rounds and one in the chamber.

From there, more or less, the concept was applied to other guns. "If you are talking about detachable magazines, basically what you are doing is talking about a box with a spring, and one puts the bullets in the box and the spring pushes them up into the firearm and the chamber," Professor Robert Cottrol, a firearms expert at George Washington University Law School, said. "Essentially, if you have a device such as that, anybody can build a bigger box. That is essentially what we are talking about at the end of the day. It is not new technology."

The technology might not be new, but the application of it has changed over time. During World War II, German forces began using high-capacity clips on assault weapons, and Russian and U.S. forces quickly adopted similar modifications. In the 1940s and '50s, according to Cottrol, the U.S. government sold large amounts of M1 carbine rifles that took either a 15- or 30-round magazine.

In later decades, the clip gained popularity among domestic police and criminals alike. In 1967, the Illinois State Police adopted the Smith & Wesson Model 39, credited as the pioneer in law-enforcement use of automatic pistols. The high-capacity Model 59 would become more common in detective work thereafter, but the real arms race for these clips between the cops and the robbers came with socioeconomic changes in the 70s and 80s, Cottrol said.

"I think part of it got to be the increase in crime that came with the drug trade and the fear on the part of the police that they were being outgunned," he said. "Also, the general public had that same perception. If they were going to use guns for self-defense, they wanted something that would give them more firepower."

In 1994, the first real effort was made to rein in the use of high-capacity magazines. The assault-weapons ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton banned the manufacture of magazines holding 10 rounds or more. But that proved to be a bit of a Pyrrhic victory: Clinton was forced to make critical concessions to the gun lobby, grandfathering clips made before the ban and permitting the importation of foreign high-capacity magazines that were likewise developed before the ban.

Tim Diaz, author of "Making a Killing," a book about the business of guns, reported that producers simply stepped up their production and hoarded inventories before the law was passed.

When that regulation expired in 2004, President George W. Bush signaled that he would support extending a ban on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, but there was little political will in Congress to do so.

Clinton had taken the one bite at the apple. Tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech could do little to convince the majority of lawmakers of the need to strengthen or re-institute gun safety laws that were derided as odious, ineffective or unconstitutional.

Not everyone, of course, sees this as a problem, including those who study criminology on an academic or scientific level. There is little data available on high-capacity clip sales, but Kleck said he suspects they aren't all that prevalent.

"I'd say magazines as large as 30 and even 20 were never popular," he said. "They aren't now among civilians and never were, simply because they make the gun cumbersome. ... I suspect they were owned as a novelty more than anything else."

And yet, there are few other pieces of fruit hanging low enough for gun-control advocates. Legislating the size of a clip is fundamentally a different issue that restricting the availability of the gun itself. Legally speaking, it's an easier lift than anything else. Politically, it's about as piecemeal as it gets.

"Unfortunately, what I've been trying to do is changed the rhetoric on guns," said McCarthy. "We have seen the NRA basically out there going state by state, what I've been trying to do is say, 'Wait a minute.' The [2008] Supreme Court ruling said everybody had a right to own a gun. So I figure, okay, that issue is off the plate for now. What they have not taken off the plate yet is that municipalities and governments are allowed to have reasonable laws to be able to protect people."