PHOENIX - The husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords went to a Tucson gun store a week ago to buy a .45-caliber handgun and a military-style rifle the day before he appeared with his wife at the supermarket where she was wounded in a rampage two years ago, and it didn't take long for the purchase to draw criticism from gun-rights supporters.
Mark Kelly said he bought the AR-15-style weapon to draw attention to the relative ease with which people can get the type of gun that the shooter used in the Newtown school and Colorado movie theater killings. Gun-rights advocates attacked him for being a hypocrite for buying the same gun that he has been lobbying Congress to ban.
Kelly on Friday posted a photo on Facebook of him filling out paperwork at the gun shop. He also posted a statement on the gun debate in Washington that included his reasons for buying the rifle.
The postings generated a flurry of nearly 4,000 comments from people on both sides of the debate about his motivations and the rules for purchasing such guns.
Kelly said on Facebook that the background check from the purchases took only a matter of minutes to complete and that it's scary to think people can buy similar guns without background checks at gun shows or on the Internet. Kelly also said he intends to eventually hand in the rifle to Tucson police.
The AR-15 is among 157 military-style weapons that would be banned under a bill pending before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kelly and Giffords started the Americans for Responsible Solutions gun control group amid the wave of mass shootings in recent months and have been touring the country in recent months in support of expanded background checks for gun purchases.
Giffords was among 13 people wounded in a January 2011 shooting as she met with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. Six were killed. She resigned from Congress last year as she continues to recover from her injuries.
Doug MacKinlay is the owner of Diamondback Police Supply, the shop where Kelly bought the guns. He said Kelly bought the rifle on March 5 but couldn't immediately take possession of it because the shop had bought it from a customer. As a result, the store is required by a Tucson ordinance to hold the gun for 20 days to give the city enough time to make sure the weapon wasn't used in a crime, MacKinlay said.
MacKinlay said Kelly never revealed to the store's staff why he was buying the guns and added that it would be wrong to refuse to sell a gun to someone because of their personal views.
"He is a U.S. citizen, an Arizona citizen and expressing his Second Amendment right to purchase and own a firearm," MacKinlay said.
Todd Rathner, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association's affiliate in Arizona and a national NRA board member, questioned the point that Kelly was trying to make in buying the guns, saying a model citizen such as Kelly should be able to buy a gun relatively quickly. He also noted that such a purchase could have been a good investment as the value of those types of weapon soars amid heightened demand from gun owners.
"If you believe him, it's a cheap publicity stunt," Rathner said. "If you don't, then he was speculating on the value of the rifle because he knew the prices would be inflated."
The advocacy group started by Giffords and Kelly had no immediate comment Tuesday on Kelly's gun buys.
But the group released a statement from Kelly on the Senate Judiciary Committee's approval Tuesday of a proposal to expand federal firearms background checks to nearly all gun purchases. Kelly said the 10-8 vote was a huge step in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people. Kelly's statement didn't address the controversy over his own gun buys.
Kelly, a former astronaut who plans to keep the handgun, told CNN on Monday that it was important for him to have firsthand information on the ease of buying guns such as the AR-15 and that he looks forward to buying a firearm at a gun show in the future. Kelly and Giffords have long been supporters of gun rights and owned handguns themselves.