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CrimeBeat: What exactly is a high-powered firearm?

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CrimeBeat Q&A is a weekly feature where reporters answer readers’ questions about local crimes and the law.

What exactly is a high-powered firearm?

There’s no legal definition so it depends on whom you ask.

Hunting rifles generally are, handguns generally aren’t and assault weapons are generally argued about.

To be clear, “high-powered” mostly refers to the bullets fired rather than the gun firing them.

“It’s kind of open for interpretation,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Robert Reynolds, who oversees all training at the department, including weapons.

While the term commonly appears in the media, the sergeant avoids using the vague term to describe a firearm.

Reynolds considers any .223-caliber and bigger, to be high-powered. The most common round used in AR-15s is .223-caliber.

“An AR can reach out several hundred yards and do a lot of damage,” he said.

Caliber is the diameter of a bullet measured in 100ths of an inch, so a .223-caliber bullet is .223 inches in diameter.

Some firearms use the metric system where bullets are measured in millimeters, like the Santa Rosa police’s standard issue Glock 9mm firearm.

Assault weapons, based on the 1994 federal ban that expired in 2004, aren’t defined by the caliber of the round they fire or the amount of propellant packed in the casing. Rather, they are categorized by their capacity to hold ammunition and physical features, not the bullets they fire.

Assault weapons like Uzis, TEC-9s and MAC-10s fire pistol rounds that aren’t considered high-powered. Exactly what assault weapons are, and what they aren’t and what’s ambiguous about them, will be dealt with in a future CrimeBeat.

Gun dealer Gabriel Vaughn, owner of Sportsman’s Arms in Petaluma, says AR-15s aren’t even high-powered. He compares the size of the round to .22 caliber, often used to teach beginners how to shoot because of the lack of kickback.

“High-powered rifles are all the ones people don’t have a problem with,” Vaughn said.

The rounds AR-15s fire are .223 caliber, while common deer-hunting rifles use the larger .30-06 and .308. The AR-15’s less popular cousin, the AR-10, fires the equivalent of a .308.

But hunting rifles don’t often have detachable magazines that allow rapid fire and quick reloading, the characteristics that make assault weapons so controversial.

Bottom line: Vaughn doesn’t believe the AR-15 is a high-powered weapon, but Reynolds does. While the .22-caliber bullet is similar in size to the .223-caliber, the shape of it and the amount of powder packed in the casing behind it, are vastly different, Reynolds said.

“When you compare the two you see the results are much more devastating with the .223,” he said.

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