Why the AR-15 keeps appearing at America's deadliest mass shootings

A Las Vegas concert. An Orlando night club. An elementary school in Newtown, Conn. A Texas church. And now a high school in Parkland, Fla. 

America's most popular weapon was there for all of them. 

AR-15-style rifles have increasingly appeared in American mass shootings, including the deadliest high school shooting in the nation's modern history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday. 

The National Rifle Association has called the AR-15 the "most popular rifle in America" and estimates Americans own more than 8 million of them. 

The NRA said "the AR-15 has soared in popularity" because it's "customizable, adaptable, reliable and accurate." It is also versatile and can be used for "sport shooting, hunting and self-defense situations," the NRA said, adding the ability to "personalize" so many of the rifle's components "is one of the things that makes it so unique."

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said the AR-15, a civilian model of the military’s M-16, also cited the weapon’s versatility in evaluating its popularity.

“They’re accurate and they can basically shoot as quickly as you can pull the trigger,” according to a campaign statement.

"Along those lines, they’re very customizable — most average people can figure out how to install accessories like forward trigger grips that let you hold the gun at waist height and spray bullets while stabilizing the gun, laser sights, and you can add high-capacity magazines.”

But Dean Hazen, owner of The Gun Experts in Mahomet, Ill., and a master firearms instructor, said the reason mass shooters are turning to the AR-15 is due to a "copy-cat" mentality more than any feature of the rifle. 

"It’s really just a perception thing," Hazen said. "There are rifles that are more powerful and more dangerous than that, but they're not being used."

Hazen said the AR-15 has "gotten a bad rap." He believes mass shooters generally don't know much about guns and choose the AR-15 because of the reputation it has gotten from being used in other mass shootings.

"Thank God they don't know any better because if they did they would use much more effective weapons," Hazen said. 

Here is a list of mass shootings in the U.S. that featured AR-15-style rifles during the last 35 years, courtesy of the Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries and USA TODAY research:

  • Feb. 24, 1984: Tyrone Mitchell, 28, used an AR-15, a Stoeger 12-gauge shotgun and a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun to kill two and wound 12 at 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles before killing himself.
  • Oct. 7, 2007: Tyler Peterson, 20, used an AR-15 to kill six and injure one at an apartment in Crandon, Wis., before killing himself.
  • June 20, 2012: James Eagan Holmes, 24, used an AR-15-style .223-caliber Smith and Wesson rifle with a 100-round magazine, a 12-gauge Remington shotgun and two .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistols to kill 12 and injure 58 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
  • Dec. 14, 2012: Adam Lanza, 20, used an AR-15-style rifle, a .223-caliber Bushmaster, to kill 27 people — his mother, 20 students and six teachers — in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself.
  • June 7, 2013: John Zawahri, 23, used an AR-15-style .223-caliber rifle and a .44-caliber Remington revolver to kill five and injure three at a home in Santa Monica, Calif., before he was killed.
  • March 19, 2015: Justin Fowler, 24, used an AR-15 to kill one and injure two on a street in Little Water, N.M., before he was killed.
  • May 31, 2015: Jeffrey Scott Pitts, 36, used an AR-15 and .45-caliber handgun to kill two and injure two at a store in Conyers, Ga., before he was killed.
  • Oct. 31, 2015: Noah Jacob Harpham, 33, used an AR-15, a .357-caliber revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to kill three on a street in Colorado Springs, Colo., before he was killed.
  • Dec. 2, 2015: Syed Rizwyan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, 28 and 27, used two AR-15-style, .223-caliber Remington rifles and two 9 mm handguns to kill 14 and injure 21 at his workplace in San Bernardino, Calif., before they were killed.
  • June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen, 29, used an AR-15 style rifle (a Sig Sauer MCX), and a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol to kill 49 people and injure 50 at an Orlando nightclub before he was killed.
  • Oct. 1, 2017: Stephen Paddock, 64, used a stockpile of guns including an AR-15 to kill 58 people and injure hundreds at a music festival in Las Vegas before he killed himself.
  • Nov. 5, 2017: Devin Kelley, 26, used an AR-15 style Ruger rifle to kill 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, before he was killed.
  • Feb. 14, 2018: Police say Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15-style rifle to kill at least 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.  

USA TODAY


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