Moves to Make Assault Guns Illegal Matched by New Wave of Buying. In Washington and Los Angeles, even in small cities, the controversy over these killer weapons bubbles - while more customers rush to gun shops to beat a possible ban. DEBATE: SHOULD PARAMILITARY-TYPE RIFLES BE BANNED?

AT the gun counter of N.C. Precious Metals and Pawn, Jack Sneeden peers down the barrel of an AK-47 and smiles. ``It's an excellent shooting gun,'' he says, patting the stock of the bayonet-tipped semiautomatic. ``Low recoil. Doesn't jam.'' As he fills out a firearms transaction form, he confides, ``I have three at home already.''

``I bought me one,'' says the shop's assistant manager, William Morris. ``I always wanted one. Now, if they outlaw them, I'll have it.''

The hope and fear for a ban on the sale of assault rifles have reached even the small cities of America, as both sales of the weapons, and support for a ban on sales, have gained momentum in recent weeks.

Since five children were killed, and 29 wounded, with an AK-47 in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard in January, various initiatives have been introduced around the country to stop the almost casual flow of paramilitary-style semiautomatics, designed exclusively to kill human beings.

Lawmakers in four states - California, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Maryland - are considering legislation to ban or restrict assault weapon sales. Eight other states are discussing some type of restrictions, according to Susan Whitmore of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Handgun Control Inc.

On Feb. 10 a Senate subcommittee held hearings on a bill sponsored by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio to ban the sale of assault weapons nationwide. Testifying in favor of the bill was Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who supported a Los Angeles law, passed three days earlier, to ban both sales and possession of semiautomatic weapons with magazines that hold 20 rounds of ammunition or more.

The New York Police Department and the National Association of Police Organizations have also endorsed Senator Metzenbaum's bill.

``The only thing these guns are good for is killing people,'' says Sgt. David Rivero, spokesman for the Miami Police Department. He notes that the bullet-spraying semiautomatics are widely used by drug gangs, kill innocent bystanders, and are poorly designed for use in self-defense. Most assault rifles can be illegally rigged with mail-order parts to function as automatics, which have been banned nationwide since 1986.

But even as proposals to restrict the sales of assault weapons are being considered, collectors and others who want the guns are buying them while they can. Gun wholesalers in Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, and California report increased sales of paramilitary weapons, including AK-47s, Uzis, and AR-15s.

Here in Wilmington, a city of 40,000, Mr. Morris of N.C. Precious Metals and Pawn reports recent sales of one or two Chinese-made AK-47s a day. The only requirements for buying the $350 semiautomatic in North Carolina are to show identification and complete a half-page firearms transaction form, which the seller keeps on file.

Morris and his customer, Mr. Sneeden, both say that they want the weapons to shoot at a marksman's range, for fun. But others see an increase in assault rifle sales in darker terms.

While Mr. Metzenbaum's bill would outlaw both sales and possession of all large magazines (those holding 10 rounds or more), it would allow registered possession of the weapons themselves by people who already own them. Estimates of the number of such weapons now in private hands range from hundreds of thousands to millions.

``I'm sure the black market will be great,'' says Sergeant Rivero. ``I'm sure people are buying them now thinking the price will go up. But eventually, in the long run, the ban will help.''

Still, the level of support for a nationwide ban on sales of assault rifles is not yet clear. A California bill requiring a waiting period for purchase of assault weapons was defeated last year in the Legislature, although Gov. George Deukmejian now favors a ban.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes the Metzenbaum bill, contending that there is no functional difference between assault weapons and semiautomatic hunting rifles. ``We think it's a matter of appearance,'' says NRA lobbyist David Conover, noting that semiautomatic hunting guns can be easily fixed with large magazines to fire a rapid spray of bullets.

A better way to keep the guns out of dangerous hands is to develop a computer-based instantaneous screening system for gun buyers, authorized last fall as part of federal antidrug legislation, says Mr. Conover.

But to supporters of assault weapon restrictions, the crucial point is that paramilitary-style hardware has no place in civilian hands. ``The only legitimate use these weapons have is target shooting by some people who like doing that,'' says Eddie Correia, chief counsel to Metzenbaum. ``We're weighing the inconvenience to them compared to the risk to innocent people and law enforcement.''

``These guns were designed and manufactured to kill people on the battlefields,'' says Comdr. William Booth of the Los Angeles Police Department. ``We have seen them do just that, convert our streets and schools into battlefields.''

What is an `assault rifle'?

A rifle designed for military use equipped to provide either semiautomatic fire (each pull of the trigger fires one round) or full-automatic fire (fires burst of rounds each time the trigger is pulled).

Today's assault rifles are typified by the Soviet-designed AK-47 (those entering the United States are usually made in China), the Israeli Uzi (see illustration), and the US-made AR-15. Effective range is about 300 yards in the semi-automatic mode, less in the automatic mode.

Automatic-fire versions are sold only for military or police use.

Features of an Assault Rifle Compact design Barrel under 20 inches Gas operation to automatically load each round Intermediate-size cartridge Magazine carries 20 to 30 rounds Extensive use of plastics and stampings Weighs from 6 to 10 pounds SOURCES: FIREARMS ENCYCLOPEDIA; STAFF RESEARCH

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