The mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub has rekindled the bitter debate over the lethality — and legality — of AR-15 military-style rifles. And from countless online comments to polished press statements by politicians and advocates, the rancor illustrates, once again, how intractable the gun divide is in America.
"The lesson here is that assault weapons are the firearm of choice for mass murder," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, said Monday. "They are designed and manufactured to kill and maim as many people as quickly as possible, and that's why they have been used in the majority of these mass killings, whether at Aurora or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook, and now Orlando."
That sentiment resonated with gun-control advocates. But it was instantly mocked by those on the other side of the debate.
"I think our legislators are looking to scapegoat a gun, or gun owners who choose to own these types of firearms, as opposed to looking at the true causes that were behind this attack," said Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. "People can point to the AR-15 all they want. It all has to do with the intent of the heart of the individual who possesses it."
Those are the same positions staked out after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting exactly 3 1/2 years ago. And it demonstrates the deep and enduring gulf between those who believe America would be safer if fewer people had guns, and those who believe America would be safer if more people had guns.
While gun-control advocates rail over easy access to weapons, for example, Wilson finds tragedy in the Florida statute that prohibits patrons from bringing firearms into bars.
"Again we have a shooting in a so-called gun-free zone," he said. "If certain lawmakers are looking to place the blame for these types of incidents, they should look squarely in the mirror and admit to themselves that the utopian fantasies of gun-free zones simply do not work."
Blumenthal and Wilson agree on one point: that AR-style semi-automatic rifles have become the weapon of choice for mass killers.
Wilson acknowledges that would-be murderers may seek out weapons that previous shooters have found effective. But he said the features that make the AR-15 a logical choice for killers — the ability to take larger-capacity magazines, its compact size, a modular design that allows adding different sights and lasers — are the same features that have made it an exceptionally popular firearm with the law-abiding public.
"It's America's rifle," he said. "It's not an assault weapon — unless you're looking at what the state of Connecticut defined it as. It's a semi-automatic, common-use firearm. It's enjoyed by millions of people for fun, for target shooting, for self-defense."
AR-style rifles are modeled after the M16 military rifle, and both have been in use for half a century. There are an estimated 2.5 million to 3.75 million rifles in the U.S. built on the AR platform, which is used in scores of different models from at least eight major brands.
While AR rifles are similar in appearance to military weapons, the civilian versions are semi-automatic, meaning they shoot one bullet with each pull of the trigger, while military versions of the rifle are fully automatic and fire continuously when the trigger is pulled. Fully automatic weapons have a far higher rate of fire than semi-automatics, but even semi-automatics, particularly when paired with a high-capacity magazine, can create significant carnage in a short amount of time.
Gun-control advocates deem the semi-automatic AR-15 an "assault weapon." Gun-rights advocates generally say that term applies only to fully automatic weapons, and the gun industry has coined its own term, calling the firearms "modern sporting rifles."
That semantic battle has spilled over into legislative fights, as lawmakers have sought, with mixed success, to define exactly what constitutes an assault weapon and whether such firearms should be banned.
Those who oppose such bans, including the Connecticut law passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, believe such legislation amounts to outlawing cosmetics, saying military-looking semi-automatic weapons are no more lethal than less-popular wooden-stock semi-automatics that are not covered by the bans.
But Sen. Chris Murphy, who supports a ban on military-style rifles, has said that cosmetics matter, and that in the hands of a disturbed person, a gun made to look like a military model may in fact be more dangerous than a weapon lacking the aggressive, tactical look and features of an AR-style gun, with its matte black finish, pistol grip and railed handguard.
Several families who lost loved ones inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School share that belief and have sued the Remington Outdoor Company, parent of the firm that manufactured the Bushmaster XM-15 used by killer Adam Lanza.
"This morning's massacre of innocent civilians in Orlando is more horrific evidence of the unique lethality of the AR-15," Sandy Hook lawyer, Josh Koskoff, said Sunday. "It is no wonder that this weapon was chosen by today's shooter, as it has been by so many before him and as it undoubtedly will be again."
The lawsuit argues that the gunmaker shares culpability for the Newtown killings because, the suit claims, AR-style guns serve no legitimate purpose in civilian hands, and because the company intentionally used military language in its marketing to appeal to those eager to acquire a weapon capable of mass killings. Bushmaster's advertising copy, the lawsuit alleges, has described the rifles it sells to civilians as "mission adaptable" and "the ultimate combat weapons system."
And sales have been brisk. While overall revenue from long guns has been flat, sales of AR-style rifles increased more than 150 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to industry figures. Critics say a thirst for profits drove the industry to expand the market for AR-style firearms, in part by promoting the weapons' military pedigree.
"Defendants know that the AR-15's military firepower, unsuited to home defense or recreation, enables an individual in possession of the weapon to inflict unparalleled civilian carnage," the suit claims.
Wilson counters that the AR-15 is well-suited for civilian use, particularly for home defense. "For people that choose to own a firearm for protection, it's a very good platform that could hold off numerous home invaders," Wilson said. "Oftentimes there are two or three or more home invaders seeking to break into a house at night, and there is probably no better means of protection out there than a firearm of this type to be able to ward off an attack and save lives in the process."
Wilson knows the Orlando shooting will bring a renewed push for gun-control measures in Washington, where there has been little enthusiasm for expanding background checks or passing other restrictions of gun sales. "It's an election year, and public sentiment can switch one way or another," Wilson said.
Gun-control advocates are hoping so. "No law can stop every attack," former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday. "But as many states are showing, smart gun laws can and do save lives."
Wilson said that if politicians represent the will of the people, there will be no new laws restricting access to AR-style weapons or other firearms.
"What's important to note, and this is key here, is that after these types of tragedies, gun ownership usually escalates — a lot," Wilson said. "Nobody seems to be rushing to their local police station to turn their firearms in because all of a sudden they became afraid of them. People want to be able to protect themselves and their families."