By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who with his wife is a top campaigner for curbs to military-style weapon ownership, has drawn criticism for buying an assault rifle in Arizona, a purchase he said meant to highlight the need for gun control.
Former astronaut Mark Kelly, who with Giffords founded a new lobbying group this year to curb gun violence, said it took only "a matter of minutes" to complete the background check for the AR-15 assault weapon he purchased at a gun shop in Tucson.
"Scary to think of people buying guns like these without a background check at a gun show or the Internet," he wrote in a posting on his Facebook account. "We really need to close the gun show and private seller loop hole."
News of his purchase was quickly met with stinging rebukes from gun rights supporters on social media, who called Kelly a hypocrite for buying the gun in the first place.
"What a two faced coward you are Kelly - it's ok for you to own one and protect your family but not the rest of us?" one Facebook poster wrote.
The group founded by Kelly and Giffords, Americans for Responsible Solutions, is pushing for a ban on high-powered semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15 rifle that he bought, as well as high-capacity magazines.
Giffords was shot through the head in January 2008 when a gunman opened fire on a constituent event in Tucson, killing six people and wounding a dozen others. She stepped down from Congress a year later to focus on her recovery.
She and Kelly launched their gun control campaign in the wake of an assault rifle attack on a Connecticut school in December that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children.
The group is also calling on the U.S. Congress to mandate universal background checks for all gun buyers, and seeks to raise $20 million for the 2014 congressional elections - matching the powerful National Rifle Association's spending in last November's election.
Kelly could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. He told CNN that he made the purchase to have "first-hand knowledge" about buying such a weapon.
"For a weapon that's so deadly and really designed for the military, especially with the high-capacity magazines, it is a pretty easy thing to do, even with a background check," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer this week.
Kelly has not yet received the AR-15 because of a local ordinance requiring that the weapon be held for 20 days to ensure it was not stolen or used in any criminal activity. He said in the Facebook posting that he plans to turn it over to the Tucson police department once he receives it.
Doug MacKinlay, the owner of Diamondback Police Supply where Kelly bought the gun, said Kelly was initially turned down when he walked into the store several weeks ago because his identification was from Texas. Kelly lived in Houston but has since moved to Arizona.
Kelly said he showed Arizona identification and was able last week to buy a .45 caliber pistol and the assault weapon that he spotted while making the purchase.
MacKinlay now regrets the sale. He told Reuters he would not have sold Kelly the rifle if he knew that the $1,000 purchase was going to be used to make a political statement.
"I would have told him politely that we would not be completing the transaction," MacKinlay said. "We do not support his stance that civilians should not be able to purchase assault-style weapons. Not by a long shot."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)