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Gun debate 101: Time to ban high-capacity magazines?

President Obama proposes banning high-capacity magazines in a bid to make mass shootings less likely. But gun rights advocates worry that the ammo ban is a sleeper provision that will, ultimately, make many handguns illegal, as well.

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President Obama (r.) and Vice President Joe Biden announce proposals to counter gun violence during an event at the White House on Jan. 16.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Adam Lanza, police say, used at least 150 bullets shot from an AR-15 assault-style rifle during his attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 – killing 26 children and staff, and shocking the nation into a tumultuous debate over gun control.

Using the standard 30-bullet magazine that comes with the rifle, Mr. Lanza would have had to detach the springloaded magazines that pump each cartridge into the chamber only four times, as he fired relentlessly into two classrooms full of grade-school children. James Holmes, using a "drum magazine" that held 100 rounds, shot 70 people in an Aurora, Colo., theater in July in fewer than 90 seconds, police say.

That's why a ban on so-called "large-capacity" magazines is at the top of a gun control reform proposal by President Obama on Wednesday, which also includes banning assault-style rifles and beefing up background checks, among other actions.

The proposed ban on devices that are, in essence, small bullet-packed boxes with springs is an attempt to confront their popularity among gun enthusiasts. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) questioned: Who needs more than seven bullets to kill a dear? Advocates of a ban say the ubiquity of large-capacity magazines contributes to bloodshed.

But gun rights activists challenge whether banning high-capacity magazines will reduce lethality in mass shooter-type situations. They question whether the ultimate motivation for regulating how many bullets Americans can jam into their guns at one time is to make criminals out of lawful rifle owners – and, eventually, to make standard handguns harder legally to use for self-defense.

Here's a primer on the current state of law on high-capacity ammunition magazines and how that might change with the new regulations proposed by Mr. Obama.

What is a 'high-capacity' magazine, and how many are in circulation?

Guns such as the AR-15 rifle and the Glock 17 pistol have magazines, or springloaded cartridge feeding devices, that hold more than 10 bullets, the limit proposed by Obama. Those magazines were technically illegal during the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban. (Several loopholes allowed manufacturers to make cosmetic changes to keep some versions legal.)

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