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What you know about America’s deadliest weapons is probably wrong


The type of rifle used to kill 17 in Parkland is similar to those used in in other mass shootings, but it’s not anything like guns that do the most killings of Americans each year.

Semi-automatic rifles with replaceable magazines often take up a wall in gun shops, many of them variants of the nearly ubiquitious AR-15 rifle, often with a wall to itself in gun shops. The Parkland weapon was described as an AR-15-type rifle. The rifle used in the Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shootings was a Sig Sauer MCX, a gun reportedly designed by request for U.S. special forces. Such weapons typically fire a relatively small but quite fast 5.56mm round, which is also used in AR-15 derivatives like the military’s M-16 and M-4 rifles.

These sorts of rifles are sold to civilians, often for less than $1,000 and with a quick background check. They can fire as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger, propelling high-speed bullets with little recoil, so it’s easier to aim. That makes them popular at gun ranges — and also in some of America’s worst shootings, including Orlando, Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.

Such rifles are quite rare in American homicides, which themselves are a fraction of America’s gun deaths.

In 2015, 36,252 people were killed by any kind of gun in any kind of way, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Of these, 12,979 were homicides. For every gun homicide that year, there were about two suicides.

The FBI says that more than two-thirds of the nation’s murders in 2016 were committed with guns.   Rifles — a category that includes the AR-15 and the MCX — account for about 5 percent of the murders where the type of gun is known. Shotguns are similarly unpopular. Handguns account 92 percent of firearms murders where the kind of weapon is known.

While the MCX looks something like some AR-15 variants and can use magazines from that rifle, its internal workings are completely different. Still, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms described the Orlando gun as a “.223 caliber AR type rifle” and included a picture of an AR-15. The .223-caliber and 5.56mm rounds are interchangable in most AR weapons.

There is no one-look for the AR-15, which the military turned into the M-16 rifle and M-4 carbine. Few AR-15 rifles sold today have the Vietnam War-era handguards and the carrying handle that doubled as a sight. Afficianodos buy accessories, like grips, sights and flashlights. Other gun owners sometimes mock the accessories.

Most .223-caliber rifles can also fire the military’s standard 5.56mm rounds. Those include a bullet called M855, which the ATF had proposed banning because the bullet designed to penetrate steel helmets about six football fields away could now be used in pistols made in the style of the AR-15. The ATF backed down with political pressure.

From 1994 to 2004, the United States banned some models of semi-automatic assault rifles, prohibiting some specific models of guns and some guns with particular features, such as a pistol grip. The effectiveness of the ban is disputed.

Some states have banned larger-capacity magazines and particular models of guns, including California, New Jersey and New York. Massachusetts banned guns by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, who was later endorsed by the National Rifle Association for his presidential bid.

Parkland’s massacre, like those in Las Vegas and Orlando, resonated in the political sphere. It’s not yet clear whether that will result in any legislative changes. After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama proposed gun control efforts that included requiring background checks for all gun sales, including between private sellers; limiting how much ammunition magazines can carry; and reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban. None of those proposals ever became law.

While sales through federally licensed firearms dealers must have background checks, sales between private sellers within a state don’t require such checks and don’t even require paperwork. On Thursday, AR-15s were selling for $500 or less on FloridaGunTrader.com. A bump stock for an AR-15, a device that let a gunman in Las Vegas simulate fully automatic fire,  was selling for $175.



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