The local and state officials calling for gun legislation efforts must overcome the popularity of a widely-available weapon

By Jeff Truesdell
February 15, 2018 04:06 PM

Calls by state and local officials in Florida on Thursday to move forward on gun-control legislation run up against the fact that the AR-15-style assault rifle used in a school shooting that killed 17 people is “the most popular rifle in America,” according to the National Rifle Association.

The weapon — used in recent mass shootings at a Las Vegas concert, a Texas church, and an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, among others, according to The New York Times — was prohibited under a federal assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004 but has since emerged as “America’s rifle,” editor Mark Chesnut wrote for an NRA website.

Attempts at prohibition have only led enthusiasts to purchase more of them, with production of AR-style rifles rising from 107,000 in 2004 to 1.2 million in 2015, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, reports NBC News.

The reason the gun turns up so often in reports of mass casualties, says Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, is that “they have a higher capacity for bullets, and therefore for shots fired,” she tells PEOPLE.

The AR-15-style rifle is a civilian model of the military’s M-16 assault rifle. “They’re accurate, and they can basically shoot as quickly as you can pull the trigger,” The Brady Campaign says in a statement.

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“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 level height and spray bullets while stabilizing the gun, laser sights, and you can add high-capacity magazines,” the campaign says.

Its appeal to gun enthusiasts, according to the NRA, includes “tinkering” (“If you can’t build one of these rifles on your kitchen table with just a few specialized tools — legally, of course — you probably skipped shop class in high school,” according to Chesnut) and uses from self-defense to competitive shooting to hunting.

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AR-15 inventor Eugene Stoner never intended for the weapon to be commercially available to the public, his family said in 2016, reports NBC News.

“Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47,” the Stoner family said in a statement, referencing another Russian-made assault rifle. “He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events.”

Says Brown: “It is unique, in terms of the American experience, to have such easy access to military-style weapons, and that is causing many Americans to question such easy access, along with many other important issues.”

Those issues, she says, include conversations about laws to help keep such weapons away from at-risk individuals who might use them for injurious purposes that would include suicide.

Disturbing or concerning social media posts — such as those now attributed to alleged Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz — should qualify as alarms to be shared with law enforcement or mental health workers to ensure that guns are temporarily removed from someone, or warrant that person’s placement on a registry to prevent them from buying guns, she says.

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Four states — Connecticut, Washington, Oregon and California — already have passed what Brown called “extreme risk protective orders” that would allow concerned individuals to raise those red flags about others. Meanwhile, in Florida, she said, the Brady Campaign worked last year to successfully overturn a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott that prevented physicians from counseling patients about the dangers of having guns in their home.

“That is exactly the kind of law that runs counter to any notion that we are trying to protect our kids,” she says.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who said the suspect was a former student who had been disciplined and expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, sounded a similar note in requesting more funds for counseling, mental health and gun control.

“We should not have disconnected youth wandering around in our communities,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “Students have been reaching out to e, reaching out to staff … saying that now, now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws in this country.”

“I hope we can get it down in this generation,” he said, “but if we don’t, they will.”