Inside the rise of AR-15-style rifles in America

The use of assault weapons is on the rise. In the last three years, 67% of gun massacres were with assault weapons.

10/27/2021 3:46:00 PM

In the decade after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was enacted in 1994, the U.S. saw a 43% drop in gun massacre deaths, according to one report. After it expired in 2004, the report said gun massacre incidents involving assault rifles skyrocketed 167%.

The use of assault weapons is on the rise. In the last three years, 67% of gun massacres were with assault weapons.

The historySometimes referred to as"assault weapons" or"military-style rifles," this class of firearm can encompass many different kinds of guns -- not just the more well-known rifles, such as the AK and AR-15 series weapons. The term"assault weapon" generally encompasses a wide range of models, including the UZI rifle and pistol, the Beretta AR-70, the SKS rifle and more, according to the California Attorney General's Assault Weapons Identification Guide.

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AR-15 style rifles are rifles"modeled on the AR-15 platform and that fire the same caliber cartridges," Klarevas said, such as the Smith & Wesson M&P15 and the Ruger AR-556.Along with their use in hunting, for some Americans, AR-15-type weapons also connote patriotism, which can be traced back to the M16 military rifle that became prominent during the Vietnam War, according to Garrett.

AP, FILEA U.S. Marine, a bayonet fixed to his M16 rifle, prepares to enter heavy undergrowth in search of Viet Cong Snipers in Vietnam, Dec. 30, 1967."It didn't hurt that Sylvester Stallone uses an assault-type weapon in 'Rambo,'" the 1982 film about a Vietnam veteran, Garrett said.

MORE: The type of gun used in most US homicides is not an AR-15But in 1989, an AK-47 was used to kill five children at a Stockton, California, elementary school, leading California to become the first state to enact an assault weapons ban, Klarevas said. That was followed by two other high-profile mass shootings with semiautomatic pistols -- one in San Francisco and one on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train -- in 1993.

Newsday via Getty Images, FILEFirst responders work at the scene where a shooter opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train stopped in Garden City, N.Y., Dec. 7, 1993.Those shootings were the impetus for the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, signed into effect by President Bill Clinton in 1994, stopping the manufacture, sale, transfer and possession of these types of firearms.

The federal law led to a decrease in gun massacre incidents where six or more victims are killed, Klarevas wrote in areport he issued last yearas an expert witness in a federal court case challenging California's ban on assault weapons. When compared to data from 1984 to 1994, the U.S. saw a 43% drop in gun massacre deaths and a 26% decline in gun massacre deaths involving assault weapons in 1994 to 2004, according to his report.

The federal ban was not renewed by Congress and expired in 2004. Gun massacre incidents involving these weapons then skyrocketed from 2004 to 2014, jumping 167% compared to the 10 years the federal law was in effect, Klarevas' report said, and active shooter incidents with different guns overall have been steadily climbing over the last two decades,

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according to FBI data,which does not break down murders by exact model of gun used.While there's no federal assault weapons ban now, Washington, D.C., and seven states -- California, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York -- have banned the possession of certain kinds of these firearms, and the rules vary state to state. According to Klarevas' report,"In the past 30 years, accounting for population, states with assault weapons bans in place experienced 54% fewer gun massacres involving the use of assault weapons and 67% fewer deaths resulting from such attacks perpetrated with assault weapons."

The pros and consIn many rural and suburban areas, fully and semi-automatic rifles hold a practical value, such as for defending property, and a familial value, to pass down weapons to future generations, Garrett said.Jacob Byk/AP, FILEBrock Peterson covers his heart while holding his custom AR-15 rifle during a pro-Second Amendment rally held in front of the Wyoming Supreme Court in Cheyenne, Wyo., April 14, 2018.

AR-15-type rifles are also beloved as sporting rifles because they are accurate, versatile, light and easy to disassemble, Garrett said. They're also simple to shoot -- Garrett said anyone could be trained in a few hours.Oliva and his wife, both Marine Corps veterans, shoot AR-15s recreationally.

"The way it's designed, it is easily adaptable. It can fit my frame," Oliva said, and with adjustments,"It can also fit my wife, and she can shoot that rifle just as easily."Oliva stressed that AR-15-style rifles are semi-automatic -- and the automatic rifle he used in Iraq and Afghanistan"is not the same rifle that I have in my gun safe today."

The rifle he carried in war was automatic and could fire three rounds without any other action, Oliva said, while the gun in his safe is semi-automatic and requires pulling the trigger every time you want to fire.But according to Garrett, automatic and semi-automatic rifles can easily fall into the hands of those who want to commit murder.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images, FILEResidents grieve following a shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn., where at least 26 people, including 20 young children, were killed when a gunman assaulted the school.

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Sometimes after a high-profile mass shooting, states will tighten up gun laws, such as by requiring background checks, reducing the sale of certain weapons or banning the sale of high-capacity magazines. But those looking to buy these items can often find another way, Garrett said.

In most states you must be 21 years old to buy a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, but only need to be 18 to buy a rifle, he pointed out. That's because, historically, rifles have been used by people in rural areas to hunt or defend property, Garrett said. But with the prevalence of private and black market sales,"none of these laws apply in reality," he said.

Obtained by ABC NewsInside the hotel room of the gunman at the Mandalay Hotel in Las Vegas, following the mass shooting in 2017.Some guns are modified by bump stocks, which are used to make the weapons fire like machine guns. The perpetrator of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, used a bump stock, leading them to be banned federally in 2019.

George Frey/Getty Images, FILEA bump stock device that fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, shown at a gun store, Oct. 5, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah.Since 9/11, the 10 deadliest acts of intentional violence in the U.S. have all been gun massacres, according to Klarevas. Of those 10 acts, the seven most recent -- including Parkland -- involved what he defined as an assault weapon. The other three shootings, carried out with handguns, were the oldest, one taking place in 2007 and two others happening in 2009.

MORE: On anniversary of Pulse mass shooting, survivor remembers best friends who were killedIn the 1980s, less than 20% of gun massacres involved assault weapons, while in the 2010s, that number went up to 35%, Klarevas said. In the last three years, those weapons made up 67% of gun massacres, according to his report.

The push and pull over bansWhen Alex was killed in Parkland,"it left a huge hole in my family that could never be replaced," his aunt, Gail Schwartz, told ABC News. Alex would have turned 18 in July.InstagramAlex Schachter is seen here in this undated file photo.

Schwartz, along with other family members and survivors of the Parkland and Orlando mass shootings, launched Ban Assault Weapons NOW (BAWN), a grassroots initiative aiming to ban assault weapons in Florida through legislative and electoral efforts.BAWN first looked to bring a constitutional amendment banning assault weapons before Florida voters, and collected signatures and donations across the state, she said.

"But when we took the amendment to the Florida Supreme Court -- because we need to get their approval before appearing on the ballot -- the ... justices rejected the amendment," Schwartz said.Florida's Supreme Court rejected the proposed constitutional amendment in June 2020 on grounds that the wording was misleading,

The Miami Herald reported.The ballot measure summary, which was limited to 75 words, said assault weapons lawfully possessed before the new rule would be exempt; the ballot measure's full text said the weapons could not be transferred, the Herald reported. The majority of the justices, however, said"the summary exempts the weapon itself. So, under that theory, the weapon, if it’s registered, could be transferred to someone else," and since the justices'"interpretation of the summary conflicts with the full text of the amendment," they deemed that"the measure itself is misleading," the Herald reported.

When BAWN lobbied the Florida legislature in 2020, 52 co-sponsors signed on, accounting for 90% of the state's Democratic legislators, she said. But no Republicans -- who hold the majority in Florida's legislature -- would co-sponsor the bills, Schwartz said.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters, FILEAR-15 rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pa., Oct. 6, 2017.Those numbers mostly match up with how members of political parties feel about a potential ban. When split by party, 27% of Republicans support an assault weapons ban and 70% oppose, while 88% of Democrats support the idea and 11% oppose it,

according to an April pollfrom Quinnipiac University, a nationally recognized public opinion polling center.Overall, 52% of Americans support and 43% oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, according to the poll.MORE: People hoping to protect kids from accidental gun injuries, deaths push for stronger safety laws

Oliva is among those against a ban."It's truly heartbreaking to hear the stories" of mass shootings, Oliva said, but he added that AR-15s tend to take the blame"for the evil that the individual has committed instead of holding those individuals responsible."

Read more: ABC News »

The guns are fine. It’s those dang bullets that keep killing everyone SIGH..... Why would you need a rapid shooting gun to hunt with unless your hunting people Why don’t you report the fact that most deaths by guns are not by AR 15’s? They are buy illegal handguns! Take Chicago out of the equation and I would imagine the number changes! Cashless bail and defunding police isn’t gonna help either!

When are you people gonna wake up? ABC is just stirring the pot. I have Pro Gun Friends, and Anti Gun Friends, and we all get along just fine. Going along with the Media Propaganda is part of this country's problem. The majority of defined mass shootings are done with hand guns, not rifles. So it stopped 3 assaults and then saw the same 3 assaults come back in a random year?

Liars figure and figures lie. I agree with this point -- however, that is some very carefully worded statistical data right there.

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Nuff said! I don’t see any mention of the weapons used in the increase since 2004 You realize you would need a LOT more data to be able to tie those things together right? Or is that left? Kina hard to tell from where I am. Some of us don’t take everything at face value. MORE DATA PLEASE with explanations and pictures cause some of us are stupid.

Why did it expire? More money more deaths 😳 Why do people feel they need to possess such a thing anyway? Unless the Third Reich is breaking through your window at night, you probably won’t need one for protection. Unless you live adjacent to the Serengeti, you probably won’t want one for hunting. - so why have one?

Lots of poorly endowed white men. The Republican Party has problems keeping up. As a result, they never had any interest in preventing the gun massacres again. Are they the party of death? Gun massacres commonplace, and OK with them, and Covid deaths over 740,000, and also OK with them. partyofdeath and what about actual overall homicides? It's about how many people died, not how flashy the deaths were.

I felt it in Chicago.

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They make up 2% of shooting deaths the majority of shooting deaths are grandpa's hunting rifle and pistols. You're using wrong stats because the number is larger No shit? Strange how gun laws seem to work when we actually apply them. 🤔 We Must Hold NRA their puppet Politicians, Gun manufacturers, gun dealers and of course the individual shooters accountable, To the Fullest Extent Of The Law 🇺🇲💯💙🧡💗🙏🏾 Amen. Father God, Creator, Mother Earth Help Us All, Deliver Us From evil GOG/GOP and MAGOG/MAGA, Amen.

Lol Thanks “W” & GOP 🤦‍♂️ Most welcome, precious people! Doesn't this tell all reasonable Americans all we need to know? I never flipped my M4 to Burst in.any if my deployments, meaning I functionally had an AR-15. That level of firepower isn't appropriate or necessary for civilians. Full stop. lmao...yeah, we know this but the NRA has bought the 'Government's' moral compass.

Wtf is a 'gun massacre' now? Gun crime decreased for more than a decade after it was sunset.

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Well, that’s shocking, said no one with a functioning brain. The democratic religion and their government No duh 🙄 gunsense GunControlNow We need to get these weapons off the streets I'm not talking about your hand guns or your normal hunting guns for deer and squirrels and pheasant I'm talking about the guns that are used for mass killings nobody hunts with the AR-15 unless you want to rip the animal part

The devil is in the data What's the view from the defensive NRA? Most shootings are committed with pistols so I’m pretty sure those numbers are invalid You stupid fcks need to learn about the subject you're using to trigger the gullible leftist anti gun nuts. AR-15 IS NOT AN ASSAULT RIFLE. Not every 'big black scary rifle with a clip' is an assault rifle, idiots. What soft headed morons are jumping on your wagon?

NYC has the strictest gun laws in the country that are not enforced. Wait til they tax your guns in 2022 then when u don’t pay your taxes they come for your gun. If you don’t give up your gun they take you to jail. Just like the Mob, tax evasion.

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