Shorter than a baseball bat and lighter than a bowling ball, the AR-15 rifle is America’s favorite semi-automatic rifle – as evidenced by the one in 20 people who own them.
It’s affordable. It’s simple to shoot. Its gentle recoil makes it easy to aim. When customized with high-capacity magazines, its firepower can rival military arms.
The AR-15’s high-velocity bullets make this rifle so deadly, as those shot are quite literally eviscerated by the blast.
This is what also makes it an absolute killing machine and a dismally regular theme in an epidemic of mass shootings – including the latest massacre in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday night.
At least 22 were killed and 50 to 60 injured after a gunman armed with an AR 15-style rifle hunted down victims in a bar and grill, and bowling alley – locations guaranteed to be packed with people.
Sheriffs issued this picture of the man they are hunting. He is seen entering Sparetime, a bowling alley in Lewiston
The gunman, wearing a brown hoodie, is seen in Lewiston on Wednesday night
It is the deadliest mass shooting to hit America this year.
The town and neighboring city of Auburn were placed on lockdown, and the rising death toll prompted local hospitals to declare a mass casualty event.
Law enforcement asked people to shelter in place and lock their doors.
Here Dailymail.com investigates the weapon’s almost magnetic attraction in a bid to explore the familiar dilemma: how to the balance a proud nation’s historic right to bear arms with the instinctive human desire to limit the horror of mass killings?
AR-15’S RESUME OF HORROR
In early May, grisly videos of bodies heaped outside of a suburban Texas mall shocked a nation that has grown accustomed to tragedy.
Eight people were killed and seven more wounded when Mauricio Garcia, armed with an AR-15 and handgun, stepped out of his car at Texas’ Allen Premium Outlets shopping center and opened fire.
A month earlier, Connor Sturgeon bought an AR-15 from a local dealer before shooting five of his co-workers dead at a Louisville, Kentucky bank.
One month before that, Audrey Hale used an AR-15 and an arsenal of other firearms to murder three nine-year-olds and three adults at a Christian School in Nashville, Tennessee.
What about these weapons has made them nearly synonymous with mass murder?
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, prior to the start of 2023, ten of the 17 deadliest U.S. mass shootings since 2012 involved AR-15s.
The killer who showered bullets down on a Las Vegas concert used the gun in 2017, as did the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter in 2012.
In early May, eight people were killed and seven more wounded when 33-year-old Mauricio Garcia, armed with an AR-15 and handgun, stepped out of his car at Texas’ Allen Premium Outlets shopping center and immediately opened fire.
The Robb Elementary School gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was also armed with an AR-15.
Those three shootings alone left more than 100 dead.
However, for enthusiasts of the weapon coined ‘America’s Rifle,’ this is not reason enough to ban them outright.
THE ‘BARBIE FOR MEN’ THAT LEAVES A GAPING EXIT WOUND
Defenders of the AR-15 prize them for their maneuverability and firepower, and resist the idea of federal laws infringing upon their right to bear arms.
It can be modified to fit nearly any user’s preferences. Websites offer a seemingly endless menu of muzzles, magazines, barrels, and triggers, available in multiple sizes, colors, and specifications.
It’s a diversity that firearm aficionados say make the AR-15 – dubbed the ‘Barbie doll for guys – so appealing to gun owners participating in marksmanship competitions or interested in home defense.
But what makes the weapons particularly good for personal protection also make them effective for storming a shopping mall, bank or a school – or, most recently, a bowling alley – and killing large numbers of innocent people.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade group, calls an AR-15 a ‘sporting rifle.’
The group stresses that it’s a semi-automatic weapon that only fires one round with each pull of the trigger, as opposed to a fully-automatic that continuously chambers and fires rounds.
An experienced gunman armed with a typical AR-15 can fire 45 to 100 bullets per minute. Customized with a large capacity ammunition magazine, the AR-15 can rattle off 100-plus before a user is forced to pause and reload.
In the Las Vegas massacre, Stephen Paddock modified his AR-15 with a ‘bump stock’ that made it fire at the rate of a machine gun.
Audrey Hale was armed with an AR-15 and an arsenal of other firearms, killing three nine-year-olds and three adults at a Christian School in Nashville, Tennessee
In April, Connor Sturgeon purchased an AR-15 from a local dealer before his rampage at a Louisville, Kentucky bank that left five of his co-workers dead.
This modification exploits the rifle’s natural recoil to make the firearm slide back and forth and ‘bump’ against the shooter’s finger, depressing the trigger at a nearly constant pace.
The 64-year-old killer fired at least 90 rounds in just 10 seconds.
Following the slaughter, the Trump administration banned ‘bump stocks,’ but the federal regulation was overturned by a court – a decision that the Biden Administration is appealing.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the weapon is the lethality of its bullets.
The AR-15 takes a relatively small caliber round that contains a comparatively large amount of propellant.
When fired, these projectiles travel at three times the speed of those shot from handguns. And when the bullets strike, they create a shock wave that tears through vital organs and shatters bones.
A single bullet is enough to blow apart a skull.
The round leaves a gaping exit wound – sometimes softball-sized – that causes torrential bleeding.
Such an injury is nearly always fatal unless treated immediately.
Pediatric trauma surgeon Dr. Liao told ABC’s Nightline that a child or an adult can bleed to death in as little as five minutes, as ‘a high-velocity firearm will create a giant hole in the body that is with missing tissue.’
Opponents argue that civilians have no need for such weapons that were first designed for the battlefield.
A BATTLEFIELD-STYLE WEAPON IN AMERICAN HOMES
The original AR-15 was developed by U.S. firm ArmaLite in the 1950s. The initials A.R. stand for ArmaLite Rifle, and the number 15 signifies the model.
Firearms manufacturer Colt bought the patent in 1959 and started producing the gun for military and civilian use. In the early 1960’s, the AR-15 became a favorite of the Pentagon during the Vietnam War.
Footage of armed police in school hallway as Salvador Ramos embarks on his massacre in Uvalde
Police form up before advancing on a classroom in which Ramos was located
It was later developed into the military’s fully-automatic M16 rifle – and is still used by U.S. soldiers today.
Colt still holds the trademark for producing AR-15s, but when the patent expired in 1977, competitors like Remington, Smith & Wesson and Ruger started making their own versions.
Millions have been sold. But decades ago, customers weren’t interested, as civilians preferred handguns and traditional long rifles to combat-style weapons.
‘We’d have NRA members walk by our booth and give us the finger,’ Randy Luth, the president and founder of gunmaker DPMS, one of the earliest companies to sell AR-15s, told the Washington Post.
It wasn’t until the early 2000’s – following a post-9/11 uptick in firearms interest – that AR-15 sales skyrocketed.
THE $1 BILLION BUSINESS OF AR-15s
The firearms industry had been struggling with stagnant sales for several years when the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004.
The legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, prohibited the manufacturing of certain semi-automatic firearms including AR-15s.
When Congress and President George W. Bush’s administration declined to renew the ban, there was an opportunity for gunmakers.
In 1994, AR-15s made up just 2.2 percent of all guns manufactured in America.
By 2019, that number rose to 25 percent of all firearms produced, according to data from the NSSF and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Children run to safety after escaping from a window during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School
Outpouring of grief after Robb Elementary School shooting
DPMS president Randy Luth suggested that the military’s use of the weapon during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and their marketing efforts made the guns more attractive to consumers.
‘We made it look cool,’ Luth told the Washington Post. ‘The same reason you buy a Corvette.’
A 2022 House Oversight Committee investigation determined that five major gunmakers – Daniel Defense, Bushmaster, Sig Sauer, Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc., and Sturm, Ruger & Co. – raked in a combined $1 billion in revenue over 10 years from the sale of AR-15s alone.
Daniel Defense, the maker of the DDM4 rifle used in the Uvalde slaughter in May of last year, made more than $120 million in AR-15-style rifle sales in 2021, up from $40 million in 2019.
Smith & Wesson, saw sales jump over the same period from $108 million to $253 million, while Sturm, Ruger & Co. saw earnings nearly triple from $39 million to more than $103 million.
The gun industry is now regaining its footing following a post-pandemic sales slump.
In 2020, new gun ownership rates hit a record 21 million, according to trade group National Shooting Sports Foundation.
But by 2022, the surge in gun sales subsided and purchases fell to 16.4 million – more comparable to pre-pandemic numbers.
In July of this year, Americans bought an estimated 1.19 million guns – a 17 percent decrease from last year, according to FBI data analyzed by gun watchdog site The Trace.
However, while fewer firearms are being sold, the business is still profitable. Gun makers like Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Company have seen their declines stabilize.
Smith & Wesson shares were up about 40 percent as of August this year, while Sturm, Ruger was up 2 percent.
WILL AR-15s BE BANNED?
The AR-15 has become, quite literally, a badge of honor for some pro-Second Amendment lawmakers.
Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Congressman and gun store owner, handed out gun-shaped pins to party members, who’ve worn them on their lapels on the floor of the U.S. House.
Following the massacre in Nashville, Tennessee GOP Rep. Andy Ogles was slammed over a 2021 Christmas card that showed him and his family posing with assault rifles.
In February, Long Island Congressman George Santos even backed a bill to make the AR-15 assault rifle the ‘national gun of the United States.’
To these lawmakers and many of their constituents, efforts to ban or restrict the sale of a certain type of firearms represents an unacceptable infringement on their rights.
But that’s not the opinion of a majority of Americans, as a Fox News Poll in April indicated that 61 per cent of American voters support banning assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons.
This year, Washington joined California, New York, Illinois and six other states in banning sales of AR-15s.
Just last week, the Massachusetts House approved a bill aimed at tightening firearm laws, cracking down on unregistered ‘ghost guns’ and strengthening the state’s assault weapon ban.
The bill, which passed on a 120-38 vote, would also require key gun components to be serialized and registered with the state.
The same enthusiasm to ban the guns hasn’t been seen in red states. In May, Texas Republicans blocked a bill to raise the minimum age for purchasing semi-automatic firearms from 18 to 21.
After the mall attack in Allen, President Biden once again urged members of Congress to tighten gun control measures and bring back the long-expired federal assault weapons ban.
Until then, the AR-15 will inevitably make an appearance in more mass killings – like the most recent Lewiston slaughter.
‘I am heartbroken for our city and our people,’ Mayor Carl Sheline said in a statement. ‘Lewiston is known for our strength and grit and we will need both in the days to come.’