In Florida, an AR-15 Is Easier to Buy Than a Handgun

A photograph posted on an Instagram account that is believed to be linked to Nikolas Cruz, the man accused of killing 17 people at a Florida high school on Wednesday.

For the latest on the Florida school shooting, read Friday’s live updates.

Newtown. San Bernardino. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. And now, Parkland.

Five of the six deadliest mass shootings of the past six years in the United States. In each of them, the gunman had an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.

The N.R.A. calls the AR-15 the most popular rifle in America. The carnage in Florida on Wednesday that left at least 17 dead seemed to confirm that the rifle and its variants have also become the weapons of choice for mass killers.

It is not hard to see why. Originally designed for troops to kill enemy fighters, the weapon became the military’s M16 and the shorter M4 carbine.

It was easily adapted for civilian use, with one major difference: Military versions can fire fully automatically — or in bursts of several shots — by depressing the trigger once. The civilian semiautomatic version requires a pull of the trigger for each shot.

But other features that make the AR-15 so deadly on the battlefield remain. It is light, easy to hold and easy to fire, with a limited recoil. Bullets fly out of the muzzle more than twice as fast as most handgun rounds.

Equally important for a gunman looking to do a lot of damage in a hurry: AR-15-style weapons are fed with box magazines that can be swapped out quickly. The standard magazine holds 30 rounds. Equipped in this way, a gunman can fire more than a hundred rounds in minutes.

The man accused of the killings in Parkland had “countless magazines” for his AR-15, the local sheriff said.

And there is still one more reason the weapons are so popular in states like Florida: They are very easy to buy — and for a 19-year-old like Nikolas Cruz, the shooting suspect, far easier to obtain than a handgun.

Florida has a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases. But anyone without a felony record, domestic abuse conviction, or a handful of other exceptions — such as a commitment to a mental institution — can walk into a gun store, wait a few minutes to clear a background check, and walk out with an AR-15 -style rifle, magazines and ammunition.

Under federal law, you also must be 21 to buy a handgun from a firearms dealer. But 18-year-olds can buy semiautomatic rifles.

The AR-15 rifle used in the attack was purchased legally, at Sunrise Tactical Supply in Florida, according to a federal law enforcement official. “No laws were violated in the procurement of this weapon,” said Peter J. Forcelli, the special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami.

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AR-15: The Gun Behind So Many Mass Shootings

The AR-15 assault rifle, and others like it, is commonly used in mass shootings in the United States. Here's a closer look at likely reasons.

The AR-15-style rifle has become a common weapon for consumers, but it’s also become a weapon of choice for mass shooters. Gunmen have used them to kill dozens in horrific rampages across the country. Some of the factors that make the AR-15 popular with consumers may also help explain why mass murderers have opted to use them too. They’re capable of firing rounds that can go straight through a human body and penetrate a wall behind it. They’re lightweight and easy to use. Since the muzzle doesn’t rise up much, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to bring it back down, acquire a proper sight line and to fire again. A weapon that’s already deadly can potentially be made more dangerous by adding things like foregrips, scopes and red dot sights. The guns are expensive. But they’re within reach. They cost between $500 and $900. The AR-15 model is basically a consumer version of military-grade assault rifles such as the M-16 or the M-4 carbine. They look almost identical. The big difference: The AR-15 and its variants are semiautomatic; the M-16 and M-4 can be switched to automatic or burst. AR-15-style rifles were prohibited under the assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004. But since that ended, sales have surged. These weapons have been branded under the term “modern sporting rifle,” which gives a weapon designed for war a consumer-friendly label. The gun is also marketed for home defense. But although they’re clearly strong enough to stop an intruder, critics say AR-15-type rifles could also cause unintended damage or even death in untrained hands. One thing is clear: No matter who’s using it, it can be an extremely lethal weapon.

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The AR-15 assault rifle, and others like it, is commonly used in mass shootings in the United States. Here's a closer look at likely reasons.

Congress explicitly banned AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles that fit its definition of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004.

Since that law expired 14 years ago, in most states it has been just as easy to buy an AR-15-style gun as it is in Florida. (Buyers can also purchase the weapon in person or online from private sellers who are not required to perform a background check — an exemption known as the “gun show loophole.”)

Only New York, California, Washington, D.C., and five other states have their own assault-weapon bans, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Washington, D.C., and eight states also limit the large capacity magazines that have made many mass shootings so deadly. Even so, there have been efforts to circumvent the bans, legally and illegally, by making minor changes to the weapons.

“These guns are much more deadly than traditional bolt-action rifles or traditional shotguns, but they are regulated the same way” in most of the country, said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel of the Giffords center.

Among the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years, the only one not carried out with an AR-15 style rifle was the Orlando nightclub attack two years ago that left 49 dead.

The gunman, Omar Mateen, had a Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle, which shares features with the AR-15, though it functions via a different semiautomatic design — and is just as deadly.

All of these military-style semiautomatic weapons have something else in common. They have been heavily marketed as home-defense and marksmanship weapons, and their sales have been a major driver of profits for gun manufacturers over the past two decades.

“Americans own about five million AR-15s and it should go without saying that virtually all AR-15s are never misused,” a post on an N.R.A. website said a few years ago, describing home protection and shooting competitions as among the ways the guns “are used by good people for perfectly good reasons.”

The industry also now calls these weapons “modern sporting rifles.” Gun organizations detest the label “assault rifle,” even though the federal legislation that enacted the decade-long ban specifically described the AR-15 and similar models as assault weapons. (The “AR” in the name, however, does not stand for assault rifle — it actually stands for ArmaLite rifle, reflecting the name of its original manufacturer.)

Paradoxically, the industry has boomed when under threat of new regulations, as buyers made new purchases because they feared additional ownership limits were about to be imposed.

For similar reasons, the election of Donald J. Trump helped clobber the share prices of some gun makers, as fears of new restrictions eased.

The publicly traded gun makers Sturm, Ruger & Company and American Outdoor Brands both lost about a quarter of their market value in the days after Mr. Trump’s victory.

Earlier this week the Remington Outdoor Company, one of the country’s biggest and oldest gun manufacturers, said it would seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid plunging sales and mounting losses.

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