When Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday and slaughtered 26 children and staff, he was using an AR-15-style rifle.
That’s the same gun, or at least a similar weapon to the one used to kill 12 people and wound dozens more in a July movie theater massacre in Colorado. It was used again this month to kill two people in a Portland, Ore., mall shooting.
These senseless killing sprees have people talking about gun control and mental health issues. They also have focused attention on a weapon that is now front and center in the debate on gun control.
To many, the AR-15 is a mystery.
It’s also a worry. Questions have been asked about what a military-style assault weapon with high-capacity ammunition clips is doing in a private home, accessible to a troubled family member.
But the gun, and versions of it, are well-known in the gun community. These guns are so popular, in fact, that they can be found in many homes across America.
“I estimate nationwide there’s anywhere from 5 to 10 million of that rifle in the hands of lawful citizens,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts.
The semi-automatic rifles, he said, are used largely for target practice and hunting.
“For the most part, they are the target-shooting rifle that’s out there ... because they’re used in all of the national championships and state championships,” he said.
Wallace called it “the modern sporting rifle.” He added: “We don’t consider it an assault weapon.”
Dave Frank, owner of a motorcycle shop in Salem, said he used to sell them occasionally until he ceased gun sales a few months ago. He agreed they’re a popular gun.
“It’s light, it’s easy to shoot ... and they’re practically indestructible,” he said.
The AR-15 is also used by law enforcement. The Salem Police Department, and other local departments, own the weapon, which is the civilian version of the M-16 rifle.
The Salem News made several inquiries yesterday to try to find out whether the weapon used in the Connecticut school shooting — a Bushmaster AR-15 — is sold in Massachusetts.
The answer, at least for now, is nobody appears to know.
The Massachusetts State Police referred the inquiry to the Boston office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They had an answer, or at least a reason why they can’t yet provide an answer: The Connecticut State Police have not released the model number of the Bushmaster AR-15 used in the shooting, according to Debora Seifert, a special agent and spokeswoman for the ATF.
In 1994, Massachusetts outlawed assault weapons. However, that does not mean it banned the AR-15, which comes in many varieties.
“Assault weapons are banned in Massachusetts,” said Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. “However, the AR-15 can be modified to become Massachusetts compliant.”
Danvers Police Chief Neil Ouellette said basically the same thing: “Bushmaster does make an AR-15 that is compliant in Massachusetts.”
With more than 8,000 licensed gun owners in this area, it’s likely some of them own AR-15 rifles. The state does not have readily available information on how many of the rifles are in local communities, but some information is available to police.
Licensed gun owners in Massachusetts are required to register weapons with the state.
“If we’re doing an investigation and going to someone’s house, there is a state database you can look into to see what they have registered,” said Detective Mike Crane of the Peabody Police Department.
That is not the case across the country, however.
“What it comes down to is there is no federal registry for (most) firearms,” said Seifert, the ATF agent.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.