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Virginia now tracks assault rifle deaths

January 27, 2013 | Virginia News

BY MARK BOWES | Richmond Times-Dispatch

The renewed debate nationally and in Virginia over private ownership of assault-style weapons after the Connecticut school massacre has coincided with a change in the way Virginia records categories of deaths by firearms.

Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner now lists “assault rifle” among the methods of firearm-related deaths it compiles for the department’s annual report. Before, the office had five categories — handgun, rifle, shotgun, multiple (firearms) and undetermined.

The new category appeared in the department’s just-released 2011 report. Only one “assault rifle” death — ruled a homicide — was recorded statewide for that year.

Because state law prohibits the medical examiner from releasing any information that could lead to the identification of the deceased, a spokesman said the office was barred from providing any details of about that death, including the locality where it occurred or the specific type of weapon.

Dr. Anna Noller, the department’s state forensic epidemiologist who is responsible for the department’s annual report, said the category was added at the request of one of the staff’s pathologists.

“One of our pathologists thought … assault rifles were different enough from the category that they had always been placed in — which was rifles — and needed to be pulled out into its own category,” Noller explained.

The department uses an academic definition of assault rifle that includes a combination of these characteristics: the weapon is auto-loading, has a detachable magazine that can hold more than 20 rounds, is capable of full automatic fire, and uses an intermediate rifle cartridge. It is specific to certain firearms such as an M16, AK-47, AK-74 and an M4 and M2 Carbine. It excludes semi-automatic versions of those guns.

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