The Orlando gay nightclub massacre, the 2015 San Bernardino shootings, the 2012 shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora and the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting all have one thing in common – the AR-15 assault rifle.
The AR-15 is the civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle and a reliable estimate suggests there are around 5 million of these weapons in the US, making it America’s most popular rifle. While the weapon has rarely been used in crimes such as robberies, it has been linked to some of the worst mass shootings in recent years.
Omar Mateen used an AR-15, which can pump out 45 rounds a minute in semi-automatic mode, in the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The US state only requires a person to fill out an identification form and pay $8 for a background check to buy a deadly weapon such as the AR-15.
The second amendment to the US Constitution states that the right of American citizens to “keep and bear arms” shall not be infringed and organisations such as the National Rifle Association have zealously defended this right despite growing opposition to firearms following a series of mass shootings.
The AR-15 was first built by the firm ArmaLite in 1959. It sold the design to Colt, which first began selling civilian versions of the rifle. Colt’s patent expired long ago and versions of the AR-15 are now made and sold by several firms, including Bushmaster, Remington Arms and Smith & Wesson.
Versions of the AR-15 are available in the US for prices ranging from $499 to $899. Some with additional features and a higher calibre sell for more.
What makes the AR-15 particularly deadly is that it can be illegally modified to fire in full automatic mode – as was done by Syed Rizwan Farooq and Tashfeen Malik, the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December.
One of their .223-calibre rifles was changed to fire in full automatic mode, where the weapon continues firing till the shooter stops squeezing the trigger, while the other was modified to be used with a larger magazine holding more bullets. A squeeze of the trigger in a semi-automatic weapon fires a single bullet.
With between 300,000 and 500,000 AR-15s being made every year, the NRA has mounted a spirited defence of the weapon in the face of its use in several massacres. The NRA has said the AR-15s are “used by good people for perfectly good reasons” such as home protection and marksmanship competitions.
There is even a “gun porn” blog from the NRA that suggests the various ways you can legally modify an AR-15.