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Merced Police increase firepower with assault rifle

With a rapid-fire crack-crack-crack sound ringing out around them, Merced police officers are learning to use something that could give them the upper hand against most adversaries -- the AR15 assault rifle.

Seven Merced police officers were in the midst of 24 hours of training on the AR15 Tuesday at the Merced Police Department's firing range, learning how to use the eight-pound semi-automatic rifle which is capable of firing 700 rounds a minute.

Lt. Matt Williams, rangemaster, said he has been conducting AR15 training since 2004; 40 more officers will need to go through the sessions before they can use the weapon.

"It's a good weapon. It's another tool in our toolbox. It's definitely an advantage over a handgun or a shotgun, accurate at a further distance," Officer William McComb, a trainee, said. He used the military equivalent, an M4, for four years while stationed in the U.S. Army at Ft. Lewis, Wash.

The AR15 has hardly any recoil. It's like a third arm, McComb said.

Officer Frank Bazzar has been a Merced Police Department range instructor for four years and also is a field training officer. He said the AR15 is easy to learn, has been proven worldwide, is extremely accurate and durable.

Bazzar is a member of the department's Special Weapons and Tactics team and has been packing the AR15 for four years. It's the primary weapon for SWAT officers but he has never had to fire it in the line of duty.

Merced officers will have to qualify in daytime and nighttime conditions to use the rifle and will be retested during the year on their weapons proficiency, Bazzar said.

Williams said the department bought 10 new Bushmaster AR15s a couple of weeks ago, which cost about $750 to $800 each. The first assault rifles belonging to the department were left over from the Vietnam war and several of their AR15s were seized from criminals through the court process.

Officer Krista Stokes called the AR15 awesome and very powerful.

"I hope to never have to use it. It's an amazing piece of equipment; I've never shot anything like it," she said. Stokes has been with the department for two years and was an officer in Macon, Ga., for five years.

McComb and Stokes said they respect all weapons equally. Still, Stokes said using an AR15 presents an awesome responsibility. She has never had a weapon drawn on her in Merced but unwittingly drove into the middle of a drive-by shooting involving two vehicles in a Macon, Ga., parking lot while on patrol.

Officer Ken Coe has been teaching firearms since 1995, about the time he became a Merced officer. Also a rangemaster here, Coe used an assault rifle while in the military.

"Some officers have had them in their cars for two years. It's long overdue, with the amount of firepower criminals have. The department is going in the right direction being able to protect citizens and ourselves more effectively," Coe said.

The AR15 has magazines that hold 20 or 30 bullets respectively. The .223-caliber bullets can penetrate up to 18 inches and defeat full body armor. They will shatter in contact with buildings, important to know in close quarters and to limit collateral damage. At close range, however, the bullets easily passed through quarter-inch steel plates at the range, Coe said.

Coe and Williams said the AR15 should prove valuable when there are bank robberies, allowing responding officers to cover the exits at further distance. The AR15 also is much more accurate than the service revolvers or shotguns officers regularly use.

Williams said the AR15s officers are using are the same as the ones being used by soldiers in Iraq, except the ones here have a two inch longer barrel.

It's illegal for private citizens to own assault rifles in California, Williams said, as he flipped the 15 targets trainees are using as they train with the new weapon.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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