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Did Healey’s gun ban backfire?

Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifles.Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

NATICK — Massachusetts gun dealers sold more than 2,000 military-style rifles Wednesday — nearly one-quarter of the total sold last year — after Attorney General Maura Healey moved to bar semiautomatic rifles that have been altered slightly to evade the state’s assault weapons ban.

The 2,251 assault rifles snapped up in a gun-buying frenzy represented a remarkable uptick from the 132 sold Tuesday and the 51 sold Monday, before Healey announced her ban. The numbers were first reported by Commonwealth Magazine.

By Thursday, sales had slowed but were still above normal: 143 assault weapons were sold statewide, despite Healey’s edict, according to the state Firearms Records Bureau.


The run on assault rifles raised questions about whether a policy designed to keep the high-powered weapons off the streets had instead unleashed a flood of them.

“Every single person wanted to buy an AR-15,” said Greg Malany, owner of GFA Arms TEC in Natick, which stayed open until just before midnight Wednesday to accommodate the line of customers that snaked out the door and onto the street.

“We had to turn customers away,” he said. “A lot of people couldn’t leave with their guns because we couldn’t serve everybody.”

Malany said the last time he saw such a sudden rush to buy assault rifles was after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, when gun enthusiasts feared that the killing of 20 children and six adults would lead to a wave of new regulations.

“It was crazy,” Malany said. “It was Sandy Hook times 10.”

Healey on Friday rejected the notion that the rush to buy assault rifles indicated her policy had backfired.

She said the dramatic drop in sales Thursday showed that the state’s 350 gun dealers are heeding her order to stop selling “duplicate” versions of assault rifles, which she argues are illegal under the state’s 1998 assault weapons ban.


And she said that, despite Wednesday’s spike in sales, her ban will ultimately reduce the total number of assault rifles purchased this year as compared with last year, when 10,000 were sold statewide.

“We are much better off today than we were a week ago when it comes [to] this issue in the state because now there is no confusion about the fact that we have an assault weapons ban,” Healey said. “It’s the law on the books, and it will be enforced.”

She said she is still reviewing sales data but does not plan to crack down on those who purchased assault rifles Wednesday, even though she said her order took effect immediately after it was announced in a Globe opinion piece that morning.

“From the beginning, we have made clear that this is about gun manufacturers and gun dealers,” she said. “We’re not going to take guns away from people.”

Governor Charlie Baker said he supports Healey’s move, but wants her to reassure buyers who purchased assault rifles before the ban that they are not violating the law.

“I agree with the attorney general that it would be unjust to prosecute those who simply sought to follow the law, and I strongly encourage her office to provide clarity for law-abiding citizens simply seeking to follow the rules,” he said.

Owner Greg Malany helped customers at GFA Arms Tec in Natick. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Healey said she was acting to close a “loophole” in the state assault weapons ban that allowed gun manufacturers to produce assault rifles that had minor modifications but were functionally identical to the banned weapons. Some, for example, had no flash suppressor or featured a fixed instead of a folding stock.


Healey said her directive clarifies that duplicate guns are those that have internal operating systems that are essentially the same as illegal assault weapons, or have key functional components that are interchangeable with those of banned weapons.

John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said he was not surprised that Healey’s order had sparked a run on assault rifles.

“Nothing sells better than fear, and the fear of not being able to buy the weapon of choice for mass shooters is both sickening and a reality,” he said.

Rosenthal said he was glad that, by year’s end, Healey’s ban will have sharply reduced sales of the kinds of assault weapons that were used in the massacres in Orlando; San Bernardino, Calif.; Aurora, Colo.; and Newtown, Conn.

“That will save lives,” Rosenthal said.

Gun owners furious about the ban protested Thursday outside the State House and plan to demonstrate there again Saturday.

Gui Barroso, a 29-year-old firefighter and former Marine, said he knows a lot of people who bought assault rifles Wednesday and plans to join the protest on Saturday.

“Law-abiding citizens are fearful of what the attorney general did, making her own interpretation without following the law exactly, and pretty much infringing on everyone’s Second Amendment rights,” Barroso said after visiting the Mass Firearms School in Holliston Friday.


“She potentially made gun owners future felons,’’ he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.