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.