From the archives, 1998: Semiautomatic a no-hassle purchase

Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, right with "Gun Czar" Deputy Mayor Richard Zappile look over the rifle bought by Daily News reporter Marisol Bello on Aug 10, 1998.

It takes exactly 22 minutes in the state of Pennsylvania to legally buy an AK-47-style, semiautomatic rifle.

All you need is a driver's license and a clean record. The wait is only as long as it takes the gun dealer to run your name through the state police's computer system.

You don't need a permit or a gun license. You don't need to tell them why you want the gun. Hell, you don't even need to know how to shoot it.

I know. I did it.

I'd heard it before, buying a gun is as easy as buying a pair of jeans at the Gap.

But I found it hard to believe that this particular kind of gun would be such a snap.

For one thing, it's not a legal hunting rifle in the state.

And for another, it's not exactly as if you could carry that 7-pound bad boy under your coat or in your bag for protection.

This is a weapon that was originally designed for the Soviet military to do one thing: mow people down.

Taking all of that into account, I figured it would have to be a little tough to buy one.

But, I've discovered it's actually harder to buy a pair of jeans than an AK-47 knockoff.

It's a discovery the criminals in the city of Philadelphia have long made and that the city has finally awakened to.

Mayor Rendell recently began a major, high-profile gun control crusade and appointed former deputy police commissioner Richard Zappile as the city's new gun czar.

Eighty percent of the guns used in crimes in the city have been legally purchased in Pennsylvania, according to the federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Of that 80 percent, more than 50 percent have been purchased in Philadelphia.

Fully automatic guns are illegal in Philadelphia. But criminals or gun traffickers often pay people with clean records, known as straw purchasers, to buy the semiautomatic weapons legally for them, law-enforcement authorities say.

The bulk of the buys are semiautomatic handguns. But in certain neighborhoods, where drugs rule and you need a little heavier artillery to control your turf, AK-47-style high-capacity guns have a foothold, authorities said.

Gun czar Zappile noted these weapons are not easily converted to fully automatic. And while there isn't an overwhelming number of incidents involving these guns compared to the more popular 9 mm, .380 and .40 caliber handguns, when the high-powered rifles are unleashed, they're capable of major damage.

"These weapons scare us to death," said Inspector Jeremiah Daley, of the Narcotics Strike Force and head of the North Philadelphia drug crackdown, Operation Sunrise. "We see a high density of those types of weapons in the Sunrise area," he said. "It poses a major safety concern for our people."

Since the start of the crackdown two months ago, Daley said his officers have recovered about a half-dozen of these types of guns.

Over the last three years, the city has seen 12 homicides involving AK-47-style rifles, police said.

In at least one of those cases, investigators were able to trace the gun to a legal purchase in the state.

And in Pennsylvania, being the legal purchaser only involves filling out a federal form with your basic information and answering 13 easy questions. The gun dealer would never know if applicants were lying to some of the questions.

Before I walked into Delia's Gun Shop on Torresdale Avenue Friday afternoon, I kept running through the list of excuses I could give to buy such high-powered artillery.

But who would fall for my spiel, I thought. I mean, what possible reason would I, a 20-something who has never fired a gun and doesn't know the first thing about one, need with an AK-47?

Finally, I just settled on the old "I want the gun for protection" bit. But a few minutes after I walked into Delia's, I quickly realized I'd wasted my time fretting.

"What do you have by way of AK-47s?" I asked the off-duty cop working the counter that day. I braced myself for the question that would require me to say, "I want this extremely high-powered, high-velocity gun with no apparent purpose other than to blow people away so that I could protect myself in my two-story loft in my very yuppie neighborhood."

I still wasn't sure I could do it with a straight face.

After an initial jump and a funny look, the cop/clerk said they only had a Mak 90 - an AK-47 knockoff made by an Egyptian company called Maadi. It was $399.

Not knowing the difference between the cheaply made Maadis and the better-quality versions made in China and the Eastern bloc countries, I naively said: "Sure. I'll take one."

So, there I am pulling this 7.62-x-39 mm rifle out of the box, clearly fumbling with it and finally telling the cop, "I've never shot one of these before."

Now, I thought. Now, he'll ask.

Maybe, he'll try to persuade me to buy something smaller and daintier, perhaps a nickel-plated .25 caliber semiautomatic.

But, no. He didn't flinch.

Instead, he asked for my driver's license and ran the info through the state's new Instacheck, which checks to see if I have a criminal history.

All clear.

A few minutes later, I walk out with a new AK-47 knockoff and box of 20 bullets-all for $434.40.

It scared me to think it was that easy, when you consider the carnage that can happen when one of these guns ends up in the hands of trigger-happy kooks.

Consider what happened last May to 18-year-old Lisa Carrasquillo, the pregnant teen killed when she was caught in the middle of a North Philadelphia drug gang's uncontrolled spree with AK-47s. The intended target was also killed and two others were wounded.

And this past February, 76-year-old Mary Brice was alone in her living room when she was shot 10 times in the back and legs by two drug dealers who hosed down the front of her West Philadelphia rowhouse with AK-47s. The dealers were trying to retaliate against her son for a drug deal gone bad.

And both guns could have been purchased as easily as the Daily News picked up one.

This article was published in the Daily News on Aug. 11, 1998.