The rifle type used in the deadly Bend shooting on Aug. 28 has enjoyed a popularity boom among millions of gun owners, while it is reviled by gun control advocates as an icon of mass murder.
Police say a gunman fired more than 100 shots at The Forum Shopping Center with an “AR-15 style” rifle, killing two men in the Safeway supermarket. Officers found the shooter dead at the back of the store from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, next to his rifle and a shotgun.
The police description of the rifle as AR-15 “style” hints at the rifle’s convoluted history.
Touted for its modern, military look, the AR-15 design is actually 66 years old. It inspired the design of the M-16 rifle used since the Vietnam War, but the AR-15 itself is very rarely used by U.S. Armed Forces.
The AR-15 has been called “America’s Rifle” by the National Rifle Association. It’s been dubbed “Baby Killer” by gun control advocates for its use in mass murders of elementary school children in Connecticut and Texas.
The total number of “AR-15 style” rifles in the United States is difficult to tabulate. An estimate of 20 million is on the website of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms and ammunition industry trade group. It refers to the AR-15 variants as a “modern sports shooting rifle.”
“They’re popular for home defense, recreational target shooting and hunting,” the foundation website says.
Colt firearms bought the patents for the AR-15 in 1959 from ArmaLite — the “AR” stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” The design was the inspiration of the M-16 rifle, the standard American military rifle since the Vietnam War.
The patent for the AR-15 ran out in 1977, allowing companies to build generic knock-offs. But Colt retained the AR-15 trademark, so each of the more than two dozen gunmakers who have built copy-cat variants has had to come up with their own name. Police call the alphabet soup of brands, names and numbers “AR-15 style.”
The gun has proven so popular that no one can buy a new one. With the market flooded with competition, Colt announced in 2020 that it would no longer make the AR-15. But it held onto the name.
The AR-15 is not a “machine gun.”
While the M-16, is capable of firing automatically — discharging all bullets with a single pull of the trigger, — the AR-15 is semi automatic. One bullet is fired with each pull of the trigger, but it also feeds the next round into the chamber. The system allows for a higher rate of fire than earlier bolt- or lever-action rifles.
Congress effectively banned new sales of the AR-15 in 1994, but allowed the ban to lapse in 2004. Having emerged from the prohibition, the AR-15 became a symbol for many gun rights groups. It’s often seen during “open carry” gun rights rallies in Salem and elsewhere around the nation. It’s been the prize in Republican rifle raffles — known as “rif-rafs” — in Portland and elsewhere.
Despite its popularity and high political profile, the AR-15 is a niche market in the American gun collection.
The United States has a population of 333 million people, who collectively own 400 million guns. The AR-15 accounts for less than 5% of the total. Most guns that Americans own are pistols. Pistols are also used much more frequently than rifles or shotguns in crimes.
But the AR-15 rifle has played an outsized role in the highest profile mass shootings, starting in 2007 when a gunman killed six people and himself in an apartment building in Crandon, Wisconsin. In May 2022, a gunman using an AR-15 “style” rifle killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
In the 15 years in between the two mass shootings, the places and death toll changed, but a version of the AR-15 was there. The roll call of mass murders include:
• 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut: 27 killed
• 2015: San Bernardino, California: 14 killed at a Christmas party for health care workers
• 2016: Orlando, Florida: 49 killed at The Pulse nightclub
• 2016: Sutherland Springs, Texas: 26 killed at a church
• 2017: Las Vegas: 58 killed at an outdoor country music concert, shot by a gunman firing from a high-rise hotel room
• 2018: Parkland, Florida: 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
• 2022: Buffalo, N.Y., 10 black people killed by a white gunman at a grocery store.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled demand for the rifle. Since 2020, an estimated 2.8 million semi-automatic military-style rifles have been sold, part of a pandemic-driven surge in gun purchases, according to Forbes magazine.
Mass shootings have also surged over the same period. There have been 450 mass shootings in the United States so far in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit group that since 2014 has tracked shootings and gun deaths. The incidents are on track to break the record of 692 mass shootings recorded last year. A pistol is most often used, but the use of firearms of all types are on the rise.
Oregon voters will be asked in November to vote on Measure 114, a gun control initiative that backers say would require a gun safety course before the sale of a firearm, and ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Police say that the Bend shooter had four 30-round magazines with him when he died. A preliminary investigation shows that the “AR-15 style” rifle and other firearms were legally purchased.
The Oregon Capital Bureau is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.
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