Covering Guns: Q&A with Reporter Andy Kopsa

Andy Kopsa tests a modified bump-fire modified SAR.

Andy Kopsa tests a modified bump-fire SAR.

In a recent piece titled “Fear and Loading in Kentucky,” freelance investigative reporter Andy Kopsa headed to Kentucky to shoot at the range with her friend “Jim,” who offered to show the reporter how to install the device on a semi-automatic rifle so that it can mimic, or simulate, the spray-fire of a machine gun.

While Kopsa’s piece is ostensibly about bump fire stocks—which are not new, though gaining more attention in the media as of late, especially since the introduction of one that can fire 800 rounds per minute uses belt-fed ammunition—beneath the surface, Kopsa’s story really explores the chasm between a on-the-ground gun culture, where guns are familial and recreational, and the political gun debate. Here, GunCrisis talks with Kopsa about her reporting and how she approached the story.

The premise of your recent story at Al-Jazeera America is that in Kentucky, a $350 buys you a “bump fire stock,” a gadget that can turn a semiautomatic rifle into, basically, a machine gun. Can you explain what a bump fire stock is and where do you get one?

AK: The first time I heard of it was from a good friend of mine, who as I write in the story is from Kentucky. And he and I talk all the time. After Sandy Hook, we were talking–not because of that, but just because we chat a lot–and he was the one who brought it up: Did you know you could do this?

I had kind of heard of it before, but I had no real idea what it was so as he explained it to me. That’s when I was just really kind of fascinated. In addition to semi-automatic rifles (SAR) available, oh by the way, there’s also this more brutal implement that could be attached to be make it even scarier.

There’s always been machining where you can machine an SAR to become fully automatic. There’s ways to actually put the trigger mechanism through your belt loop and turn it into a “poor man’s bump fire.” There are all sorts of ways too modify the weapon, and bump fires are legal.

In the story, you travel to Kentucky and go to the range with your friend, and shoot these guns. Had you fired weapons before that experience?

AK: I’m originally from Iowa so I did go hunting with my dad a couple of times, but as far as semi-automatic rifles, no. I had shot basic shotgun before, but a long time ago.

I recently shot all kinds of guns at a Poynter seminar on covering guns. I’m relatively small, and the AR-15 was the easiest weapon to shoot.

AK: They’re very easy. They look very complicated, but they’re really not.

I found it interesting that your friend didn’t want to be identified because he feared backlash because he supports some legislation that’s often categorized as “gun control.”

Loading 600 rounds into AR-15 magazines.

Loading 600 rounds into AR-15 magazines.

AK: The main thrust of my story originally, and this is with all writing, it evolves from pitch to actual story, the fascinating thing originally was the idea of gun culture versus a culture of violence, and that there is a this pragmatic group that is scared shitless to talk about it, like Jim. I talked to him after the story published, which was after the Navy Yard shooting, and he was like, ‘Man, I can’t understand why people aren’t talking about this’ but he’s afraid to talk about this, [too]. And that’s because everyone’s been conditioned to be afraid, and that was the one of the things that hopefully came through the story, Jim’s culture of being raised around guns, where they’re familial things, then there’s the shoot ‘em up idea. There’s a big chasm between those two things.

You’re known for reporting on the role of religion in public life. That background must give you an interesting perspective when it comes to covering guns.

AK: [Guns are] not what I report on typically, but I didn’t encounter any of the sort of Jesus gun crowd when I was there personally, but I do think there is a holy nature to the idea of gun ownership. One of the people I interviewed was from the Heritage Foundation, and we all know they’re a religious evangelical group, they just are, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that they are lobbying for second amendment rights and denying that there’s a [gun store] loophole. I don’t think that that is a coincidence.

There’s a very close tie-in when we think about the folks that, at least in my experience, with reporting on religion in general and federal funding [to religious groups] — there are some very common traits [politically] between guns and god, for better or worse they have been issues that have been the sole purview of the far right. I think both of those things are changing at a snail’s pace.

What surprised you about reporting the piece?

AK: How much I loved to shoot really surprised me – then, reporting that truth was troublesome to me for a moment – because of the climate in America when it comes to talking about guns, gun rights and gun control.

So you tell us that within a 20-minute drive of Jim’s house, he “could legally purchase everything he needed to convert an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, or SAR (which, each time the trigger is pulled, fires once, ejects the empty casing and immediately loads another round), into a fully automatic weapon capable of shooting 100 rounds a pop.”

But it’s legal to buy a machine gun in Kentucky (federal law only prohibits the sale of new machine guns). So the point, it seems, is that this substantially cheaper?

AK: Yes. Machine guns, if you’re going to buy a new one, it’s going to be $12,000 on up. You can get some used guns and things like that for much less but if you have a semi-automatic rifle, say Bushmaster, that is around 850 bucks, then you pay another $350 and you have a fully automatic [weapon] for under 1500.

So basically cost, and it could very well be because the background check is more extensive, at least in Kentucky.

You also mentioned that a rifle modified with a bump stock is much less accurate than a machine gun.

AK: That was in the context of talking about owning weapons for sport. My point was that there’s no reason to modify a SAR for hunting because it’s completely inaccurate, it’s unwieldy and weird and awkward and violates hunting etiquette.

One thing I would say, in talking to people in Kentucky, is though its legal, the common wisdom is you only shoot it at places like Knob Creek or a gun range. If you were going to take it out during the opening weekend of deer season, chances are the warden is going to be called. It’s technically legal, but why would you?

You wrote about about the infamous 40% statistic, which has been quoted incessantly especially since Newtown. When talking about the “gun show loophole,” people often say that a study shows 40% of guns were purchased without a background check. On one hand, it’s an old statistic from a very small sample. On the other, it’s the best stat available because funding for such studies has been choked off. That’s a problem, and so is the unknown percentage of weapons sold without a background check.

AK: Can I tell you what I asked him? This didn’t make it into the article, I’m with you, those statistics are outdated and a small sample, so the question I proposed to Mr. [John] Malcolm, [director of] the Heritage Foundation was, gauges how many shows 1,100 shows in 2013 so far, so I said, so can we just sort of listen to my hypothesis?

If we can just say one felon at each of those gun shows purchase a gun [legally without a background check from a private seller], can we maybe make the question that 1100 possibly violent felons now own guns, and he laughed at me and said, ‘You can’t prove that.’ And he wouldn’t even consider my suppositions about gun show private purchases – that’s when I said to him ‘so let’s just say a quarter of the 1100 – say around 300 felons…and he wouldn’t talk about that either. So that’s the thing that we’re up against: you can’t do studies… and it’s not open for discussion.
What did it make it into the article is depends on what your idea of a loophole is. It’s a very real thing. To say there is no loophole, that’s disingenuous.

This interview is the first in a series Covering Guns, wherein GunCrisis talks with reporters seeking to dig beneath surface of “pro” and “anti” gun arguments to to find the complicated middle ground of guns and gun violence in America. Follow on twitter at @GunCrisisNews, Tara Murtha at @taramurtha and Andy Kopsa @andykopsa.