Dec. 9 2015 12:16 AM

Assault rifles as low as $479 — laser sights extra

Like most Americans, I knew about last week's mass murders in San Bernadino before reading the next day's newspaper. Still the headline in the Lansing State Journal's USA TODAY news section was chilling, though familiar: “14 DEAD AS GUNMEN ATTACK CALIF. SOCIAL SERVICES CENTER.”

More gun violence. More gun deaths. This week's massacre.

In the Sports section was a vivid reminder of why.

There in a circular for Cabela's was an offer to save $75 on the DPMS Oracle semiautomatic tactical rifle, just $524.99. It's almost identical to the weapon used by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in their attack at the Inland Regional Center. For Cabela's it was the centerpiece of its “doorbuster” sale.

It's hard to know whether advertising an assault weapon as the national grapples with another horrific massacre is good or bad for weapons dealers like Cabela's. I'm sure it's good.

Unlike airlines, which usually pull advertising from newspapers when there is a crash, the gun world thrives on tragedy. The predictable call for gun control following the San Bernadino shootings is a platform for the National Rifle Association to stoke fears that the government is just waiting for a chance to curtail sales and confiscate weapons. Or there is the belief that owning an arsenal provides protection against foreign or domestic terrorists, criminals, or in Florida and states with stand-your-ground laws, any perceived threat.

The result is a rush to load up on weapons and ammunition.

The DPMS Oracle has a 16,inch, chrome-moly steel barrel, fires 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem. Ammunition and — Cabela's makes a point of this — is available with 10- or 30-round magazines. The retailer calls the DPMS Oracle a tactical rifle, suggesting that it’s a bit uncomfortable calling it an assault rifle, which is how users generally refer to it. I've occasionally visited Cabela's, a high-octane outdoor goods retailer, and hadn't thought of it as an arms dealer. Wrong on that score.

Still, I wanted to find out more about this rifle or other AR-15s, which is how owners label them. They are legal, at least in most states, but they are essentially a military type of weapon and as we've seen all too often very popular with mass murderers.

Cabela's is too far away for me to examine the weapon. I tried WalMart, where a sales associate said the retailer stopped selling assault rifles after the Sandy Hook massacre. Dick's doesn't sell them either. But the Dunham's Sports on Michigan Avenue does and, in fact, has a full line of attractively priced assault weapons.

But first some research. I discovered on YouTube that the DPMS Oracle is a popular assault rifle. There are ample reviews and demonstrations, all matter-of-fact breakdowns of the rifle, its performance and modifications with specialized stocks, flash suppressors, ergonomics grips, sights and lights. It wasn't clear why all of these modifications are necessary. One reviewer talked about plunking varmints or personal protection. As one of my hunting friends put it, if you need a 30-round clip to shoot woodchucks, maybe you shouldn't be shooting at all.

Though the reviews were measured during their videos, they invariably referred to the rifle as a weapon. True enough.

If after reading all of this you think the an assault rifle is just the weapon needed for your home armory, there's good news.

Dunham's sells the DPMS Oracle for less than Cabela’s. It advertised a Sunday and Monday sale on the rifle for just $479.99 compared to the regular price of $549.99. But why settle? With so many choices I handled a few different AR-15s and from my cursory examination they were indistinguishable, which no doubt explains why modifications are so important.

Dunham's offers lots of options to personalize an assault rifle. You can buy a customized foregrip, telescopic sights and high-powered lights and laser sights. While I was in the store, a shopper was complaining that the Jackson store had sold out of the DPMS. He wanted four and was asking how that would work. Sales entail a perfunctory federal registration and an electronic background check.

But it really drove home the point that we make it so easy to buy weapons that make it so easy to kill. The United States is awash in guns — about 300 million, but no one really knows. About a third of all households have guns, according to a University of Chicago study in 2014, which found that about 70 percent of those surveyed favor permitting by police.

Estimates for gun deaths in the United States start at 32,000 year, but reporting is incomplete and the total is likely much higher. It is a staggering cost, but acceptable to those who reject measures to limit gun ownership or regulate weapon sales. It means you can walk into Dunham's and walk out with an assault weapon. Background checks don't really matter, or work. Look to Aurora or Lafayette, to Portland or Santa Monica, or last week to San Bernadino.