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Post-snipers, Vermont gun fans set their sights on the Bushmaster

Call it a business boom. Bushmasters have been flying off local shelves recently. The semi-automatic rifle, made infamous by the Beltway Snipers, has always been popular in Vermont for target practice and small-game hunting. But, after October's killing spree in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, the .223-caliber "assault weapon" found with the sleeping suspects seems to have created an unprecedented demand for that brand of gun in this state.

"I've sold a much higher number than usual this month," confirms Henry Parro, owner of Parro's Gun Shop & Police Supplies in Waterbury.

Frank Lefebvre, a clerk at the Powderhorn Out-door Sports Center in Williston, has seen a similar sales surge. "Our stock of Bushmasters just dried up overnight," says the Richmond resident, who happens to own one himself.

Hinesburg's Bob Reid has a few Bushmasters at home. "They're fun to shoot and very accurate," he explains. "Also, the parts and accessories are plentiful."

Although now associated with evil around the nation's capital, the Bushmaster retains a halo of innocence in the Green Mountain State. With some of the country's least restrictive gun-control laws but one of the lowest crime rates, Vermont is sort of a Second Amendment poster child. Actually, Article 16 of the state constitution goes much further than the federal document by mentioning the right to bear arms for "personal defense," Parro points out.

"This is the safest state because an armed society is a polite society," suggests Lefebvre, who cautions that he's expressing his own views rather than speaking on behalf of the Powderhorn. "In 2001, Vermont had 13 shooting deaths. New York, which has some of the most draconian gun-control laws, had 20 to 27 murders a day in the same time period."

Statistics can cut both ways in the blame game, of course. More Americans are killed by gun-toting Americans than by foreign terrorists. A recent column in The New York Times calculated 15,980 homicides -- mostly by firearms -- nationwide last year, compared with a death toll of almost 3000 in the September 11 attacks.

But why the sudden passion for a rifle that conjures up such a bloody image right now? "I think people see it as an investment in case the government tries to ban that entire family of weapons," suggests Parro, a bespectacled man with a professorial air and a thorough knowledge of armaments.

The New England Outdoorsman in Rutland carries only the occasional Bushmaster, but owner Michael Pratico has noticed "a lot of conversations in my shop lately about legislation that could be coming our way to ban these guns. It's a hot topic for discussion."

The Bushmaster is a civilian cousin to the M-16, which was developed during the Vietnam War. "They were designed to penetrate and wound," Lefebvre says, adding that a badly wounded enemy soldier would be a greater drain on his army's resources than a dead soldier would. "It was a question of the ammo, too. The .223 cartridge is lighter to carry around."

A thin .223 bullet is dwarfed by a chunky 30-06, typically used for deer hunting. The smaller caliber is also much less costly -- $4 for a box of 20, compared to $30 for an equivalent package of the larger amunition.

Manufactured in Maine, the Bushmaster rifle is all black, a sleek combination of plastic and weatherized metal with a mid-range price tag of about $700. A ripple of political gallows humor has played on the coincidence of a weapon that shares its name with the gun-loving U.S. president. Ironically, the company's head honcho, Richard E. Dyke, served as chief Downeast campaign fundraiser for Dubya in 1999.

The Portland Press Herald reports that the firm sells about 50,000 rifles a year in 38 countries, earning $36 million. U.S. law enforcement agencies and "friendly" foreign governments account for many of those purchases. When news of the Bushmaster's role in the D.C.-area murders broke last month, Dyke told his employees, "We have nothing to apologize for."

Many Vermont gun enthusiasts, citing the familiar "people kill people" mantra, would agree. Henry Parro believes that the alleged snipers, John Muhammed and Lee Malvo, could easily have used other kinds of rifles to get the same results. "But you always come back to the fact that it's a person committing the crime," he says.

"In a DWI, we don't blame the car," notes Lefebvre, who has a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association. "There's a duality in our society."

Bob Reid, an avid target-shooter and a member of the NRA for 40 years, stresses that a variety of methods is available to potential killers. "Timothy McVeigh used ammonium-nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel in Oklahoma City," he says. "Most gun owners are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens."

And they're not necessarily all Republicans. "I've been a Democrat all my life," Reid acknowledges. "There aren't any simple demographics for people who own guns."

The NRA's munitions-minded ranking of Vermont candidates does not follow party lines: Jim Douglas gets an A and Doug Racine a C, but Peter Shumlin trumps his A-rated opponent Brian Dubie with an A-plus. The same grade was awarded to Elizabeth Ready, though fellow Dem Deb Markowitz lands at the bottom of the heap with an F, along with Independent Bernie Sanders.

Some gun aficionados draw a distinct line in the sand. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is "a Gestapo run by a bunch of Democratic liberals," contends the Quebec-born Lefebvre, who served with the U.S. military in Somalia and the Persian Gulf. He also characterizes Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and other places with stringent gun-control laws as "the Pro-Communist States of America."

If ATF agents are akin to storm troopers, it's odd that Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washing-ton, has yet to be penalized for losing track of 150 guns in 2001 and a whopping 340 so far this year. The Bushmaster found with Muhammed and Malvo was traced to the store, which reportedly cannot supply any paperwork for the supposed sale or the required FBI scrutiny.

"If they had come in here, they would have gone through a federal background check," vows Parro. "It takes about five minutes to do. I just call the FBI and give them the date of birth and Social Security number. Legitimate gun shops don't have a problem. There's seldom anyone who comes in here and doesn't pass, though."

At Powderhorn, where customers are greeted by an enormous picture of John Wayne firing a pistol straight at them, Frank Lefebvre has witnessed how the system can sometimes seem unfair. "About five months back, we had to deny a guy who'd been picked up in Florida for marijuana possession 40 or 50 years ago, when it was still a felony," he says.

A proper screening of Muhammed in Tacoma would have revealed a restraining order on his record, prohibiting the purchase of that particular Bushmaster -- perhaps assuring notoriety for some other type of weapon.

"Gun tastes always change with current events," observes Parro. "Every time there's a tragedy, we see an influx of buyers afraid the government will impose more laws," Michael Pratico suggests. "People want Bushmasters now not only as collectibles, but to proclaim their right to own that gun."

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