McLEAN, Va. — It’s a shop not unlike your neighborhood grocery store — the clerks behind the counter are friendly and the customers are eager. But among the wares legally sold here are semi-automatic rifles, pump shotguns and high-capacity magazines.
"At the end of the day it's just like any other retail businesses out there," says NOVA Firearms floor manager Erik Lorentzen, an affable salesman who also works as a firefighter/EMT.
The store is one of over 50,000 gun shops in the U.S. that are increasingly in the crosshairs of political debate and public pressure in the wake of mass killings, such as the June 12 shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 injured. Shop owners and gun advocates say that their right to do business is supported by federal and state law, and their customers are everyday Americans obeying the law.
The fact remains that the weapons used in the Orlando attack, and in many recent mass shootings, were bought within unremarkable storefronts like this one.
- Omar Mateen, 29, bought a Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle and a Glock 17 9mm semi-automatic pistol from a Florida store on consecutive days about a week before the Orlando shooting. Although the FBI had twice investigated Mateen, he was never charged with a crime and there was nothing prohibiting him from legally buying firearms.
- Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, killed 14 people and wounded 22 at a holiday office party in San Bernardino, Calif. Of the four guns they used, they legally purchased two handguns, while a friend illegally bought their two semi-automatic rifles for them in what is known as a straw purchase.
- James Holmes, 24, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater on July 20, 2012, legally bought his four guns he used in the shooting at area sporting goods stores. He also bought body armor and bulk ammunition over the Internet.
TYPICAL ROUTINE IN A GUN SHOP
When a new customer enters NOVA Firearms, Lorentzen assesses their level of experience with weapons and asks what they want the gun for: home defense, hunting, range shooting or concealed carry are common responses.
“Finding somebody the right car is very similar to finding somebody the right gun,” the former car salesman explains.
Throughout each sale, the staff is also on the lookout for anything suspicious. If something about a customer doesn't seem right, the salespeople can, and do, turn the person away. Lorentzen says he has seen four or five people refused this year because an employee had a bad feeling about a potential buyer – maybe because the person had been drinking or showed some signs of mental instability.
In this sense, firearms dealers are the first line of defense against a potential killer from acquiring a weapon. A Jepsen Beach, Fla. gun store owner turned away Mateen when he tried to buy military-grade body armor and bulk ammunition. "It was just suspicious what he was requesting," Lotus Gunworks co-owner Robbery Abell told the Orlando Sentinel. Abell also said he immediately reported the incident to the FBI.
Assuming the salesperson at NOVA Firearms doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary, once the customer has made a selection, they only need to present a Virginia driver’s license and a secondary form of identification. Finally, they fill out two short forms, one state and one federal.
After that, the shop waits for a thumbs up from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which can take as little as 5 minutes, Lorentzen said. When the system is really busy it can take as long as an hour and a half.
The NICS background check is not 100% effective. FBI Director James Comey said Dylann Roof should not have been able to buy the handgun he used to kill nine people in a Charleston church in July 2015. A drug arrest that would have kept him from legally buying a gun was not included in the material the FBI reviewed.
There is no legal limit on the number of guns or the amount of ammunition that can be purchased at one time. In 40 states, a dealer can legally sell any number of rifles and shotguns, including AR-15s or other semiautomatic rifles, to someone without reporting the multiple gun sale.
The ATF must be notified of sales of two or more handguns and "certain rifles" in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Those border states only began reporting multiple rifle sales in 2011 — in an effort to combat gun-running into Mexico — and the rule expires Nov. 30, 2017.
In the wake of Orlando, San Bernardino and other recent mass shootings involving a semi-automatic rifle, there have been calls for a re-institution of an assault weapons ban, which would make many rifles on display at gun stores around the country illegal. Rifles like the AR-15 are nearly identical to their military counterparts except that they aren't capable of fully automatic fire.
Opponents of an assault weapons ban argue that the focus on those type of firearms is centered on their frightening appearance, rather than any feature that makes them especially deadly.
For example, no rifles were used in the nation’s second-deadliest shooting. Seung-Hui Cho used two semi-automatic handguns – one he bought online and one in a store – to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.
"For those of us that know about firearms, I am much more afraid of somebody with a scoped hunting rifle and a box of ammo somewhere than I am somebody with an assault rifle walking into a building,” Lorentzen said, noting that assault weapons aren't “actually that much more lethal."
Critics of the rifles, like former ATF supervisor Jay Wachtel, argue they are military weapons tragically well suited for mass-casualty events. "When you have these kinds of guns available, these kinds of mass shootings are inevitable," he said.
Wachtel, who spent most of his career at the ATF investigating corrupt firearms dealers, says being conscientious is incompatible with selling guns. "You have to somewhere turn off your conscience when you're selling lethal implements like that," he said. No matter how scrupulous a gun dealer tries to be, "they have no idea what's going to happen to those guns," Wachtel said.
Lorentzen acknowledged there is no way to guarantee guns don’t end up in the wrong hands. “We’re human,” he admitted. “It’s not like we strap anyone to a polygraph.”