The AR-15 is the gun of choice for mass shootings and it’s easier to buy in Florida than a pistol

Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle.
Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle.
Image: AP/Rich Pedroncelli
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An “AR-15-type assault rifle” has been linked to this morning’s massacre in Orlando—the deadliest mass shooting yet in the US. The most popular rifle in the country, it’s become a symbol for both sides of the gun control debate. Update June 14: According to Florida authorities, the exact gun was an Italian version of the semi-automatic weapon, made by Sig Sauer.

According to Florida authorities, 29-year-old Omar Mateen fatally shot at least 50 people at the gay nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, early this morning (June 12). The same semi-automatic AR-15 model he used was illegally modified and used to kill 14 and wound 21 in the San Bernardino shootings in late 2015. In 2012, it was also used in the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

A little history from Slate:

The AR-15 was designed in 1957 at the behest of the U.S. Army, which asked Armalite to come up with a “high-velocity, full and semi auto fire, 20 shot magazine, 6lbs loaded, able to penetrate both sides of a standard Army helmet at 500 meters rifle,” according to When it entered Army service in the 1960s, it was renamed the M16, in accordance with the Army Nomenclature System. “AR-15” came to refer to the rifle’s semi-automatic civilian equivalent.

The AR-15 is semi-automatic. So while it can’t spray bullets like a machine gun in movies, it does reload quickly, allowing shooters to fire as fast and as often as they can pull the trigger. Amid debate over whether anyone really needs such a gun for home defense or sport, the AR-15 has become a flashpoint for gun control advocates and those who reject any limitations on their constitutional right to bear arms.

Immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre, sales of the AR-15 skyrocketed across the US. “The AR-15, it’s kind of fashionable…The young generation likes them, the assault-looking guns,” a gun store proprietor in Pasadena, Maryland, told the New York Times at the time. A photo-heavy blog post by the National Rifle Association (NRA) celebrates the assault rifle’s combat-ready aesthetic appeal, encouraging gun-owners to make their AR-15 “even cooler” by adding a silencer.

Post-Sandy Hook, legislative threats to limit access to assault rifles in the US appear to have driven up demand in Florida and other states. In Greater Orlando, according to the Orlando Sentinel, prices for AR-15s reportedly doubled in the month after the tragedy.

In Florida, would-be gun owners don’t need a license to own or buy a rifle, shotgun or handgun, according to the NRA’s website. You just have to fill out an ID form, and pay $8 for a background check (convicted felons, domestic abusers and people who have been previously been declared a danger to themselves and others probably won’t pass).

According to the California-based nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Florida does not require:

  • background checks for gun sales and transfer between private citizens
  • gun registration
  • gun-owner licensing
  • any special regulation on assault weapons
  • limits on the number of firearms that can be bought at one time

As in many US states, Florida gun laws are counterintuitively lax toward larger weapons. So even though there is a mandatory three-day waiting period between purchase and delivery of a handgun in Florida, there is no waiting period for guns that requires two hands to hold (like the AR-15). Gun owners in Florida are also protected by law from being entered into any kind of state registry or other record of where the guns in the state are going.

In 2014, parents of several of the children who were murdered at Sandy Hook filed a lawsuit against gunmaker Remington, arguing that the military-style AR-15 that Lanza used should never have been sold to a civilian in the first place. (Several other manufacturers also sell versions of the AR-15.)

“This is an instrument of war designed for the battlefield that is marketed and sold to the general public,” said Mark Barden, father of of one of the victims.

The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act protects gun-makers from civil lawsuits “resulting from the misuse of their products by others.” The suit is set to go to trial on April 3, 2018.