The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter was reportedly armed with an AR-15 — here's how it became the weapon of choice for America's mass shooters

Parkland, Florida.

Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Now, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Recent deadly mass shootings in these US cities have at least one thing in common: the AR-15.

The gunman who stormed The Tree of Life Synagogue and opened fire on Saturday, killing at least eight and wounded eight more in the suspected hate crime, was reportedly armed with the weapon.

The suspected gunman has been identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers.

This weapon has become increasingly popular in the US, especially since the 1994 federal weapons ban expired in 2004, and has been used in many other mass shootings around the country. Not just the three listed above.

To understand how and why this has happened, we put together a historical overview of the weapon and spoke with David Chipman, a senior policy analyst at Giffords and former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

The National Rifle Association did not respond to our request for comment.


The AR in AR-15 stands for Armalite Rifle — not assault rifle.

In the mid-1950s, the US Army asked a gun-manufacturing company called Armalite to develop a smaller version of the AR-10 to replace the M-1 Garand, which had been widely used in World War II and the Korean War.

The result was the AR-15.

But Armalite then sold the design to Colt, which in turn began selling the weapon to Pentagon. In 1962, the US Department of Defence changed the name of the AR-15 to the M-16.


In 1963, Colt began marketing the AR-15 to the American public as a “superb hunting partner.”

Colt

While it was still legal for gun dealers to sell automatic weapons until the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, which banned new automatic weapons, these first Colt AR-15s were semi-automatic weapons.

An automatic continuously fires when the trigger is held down, whereas the operator must continuously pull the trigger to repeatedly fire a semi-automatic weapon.

However, to this day, civilians can still own automatic weapons that were grandfathered in before 1986.


And, even then, the AR-15 was incredibly lethal.

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesAn AR-15 on display.

It shoots a .223 Calibre or 5.56 mm round at roughly 3,300 feet per second, which is about three times the muzzle velocity of a typical Glock pistol.

The AR-15’s effective firing range is also more than 1,300 feet at the least, whereas a typical Glock’s firing range is just over 160 feet.

Chipman, the senior policy analyst at Giffords and former ATF special agent, told Business Insider that the AR-15 is so powerful that they weren’t allowed to carry it during indoor raids because the rounds travel so fast that they could penetrate a victim, then a wall, then a bystander through that room.


But US civilians rarely purchased semi-automatic weapons until the 1989 school shooting in Stockton, California, which killed five people and wounded 29 more.

“Before Stockton, most people didn’t even know you could buy those guns,” Chris Bartocci, author of the book “Black Rifle II,” told CNN in December 2017.

“This stuff has been around forever; this is not new technology,” Bartocci said, adding that the media surrounding the incident helped glorify semi-automatic weapons.

Not only did Chinese AK-47s, which the gunman in that incident used, sales go up, but AR-15 sales did as well, according to CJ Chivers.


In 1994, Congress passed the federal assault weapons ban, which lasted for 10 years and included a number of AR-15 models.

The 1994 assault weapons ban, however, was complicated. It banned 18 kinds of firearms, such as certain AK-47 and AR-15 models, but it didn’t ban all semiautomatic weapons.


But when the ban expired in 2004, all models of AR-15s were once again readily available.


And they’re cheap — sometimes sold for as little as $US500.

Source: AFP


They can also be customised in a number of ways — including scopes, large-capacity magazines, bump-stocks and more — all of which adds to the gun’s popularity.

Stephen Paddock used a bump-stock during the Las Vegas Massacre last year, but in early October, the Trump administration said it was in the final stages of banning it.


It’s also easy to obtain and purchase — but how easy depends on where you live.

In Florida, for example, anyone older than 18 and with a clean record can buy an AR-15 without any waiting period. It’s state legislature have even voted down debating banning assault weapons.

California, on the other hand, recently banned all assault weapons, including all AR-15 models and any rifle with a detachable magazine or pistol grip.


Chipman said that he believes AR-15s have been so frequently used in mass shootings for two reasons: popularity and lethality.

“It’s a two-fold thing: the AR-15 is like the 4-door sedan of assault rifles,” Chipman said. “It was America’s weapon … there’s an Americana aspect.”

But so many mass shootings become mass shootings “because the AR-15 was used,” he said, adding that the damage the weapon does to the human body pales in comparison to a handgun.

“I’ve talked to ER physicians,” Chipman said. “Rifle rounds are so devastating to the human body.”

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