When 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, he carried two handguns, several hundred rounds of ammunition and a rifle that has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over gun rights in America.
Police say that the 20 children and six adults killed at the school were murdered with a .223 caliber Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. It’s one of the most popular types of sporting rifles in the country: between 2000 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, more than two million AR-15-type rifles have been sold by various manufacturers. It’s a weapon of choice among firearm enthusiasts and is “hugely popular for recreational target shooting,” according to Guns and Ammo.
But it has also turned up in the hands of perpetrators of mass murder. A Bushmaster .223 was used by Jacob Tyler Roberts to kill two people and then himself at an Oregon shopping mall last week. It was also one of the weapons allegedly brandished by James Holmes, charged with killing 12 people and wounding 58 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., earlier this summer. And it’s similar to the weapon used in the Beltway Sniper shootings, in which John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo used it to kill 10 and wound three others.
The AR-15 rifle was first developed by the Fairchild ArmaLite corporation in 1957. ArmaLite sold the rights to the design to Colt in 1959, and the weapon was adapted for military use as the M16; it went in to service in Vietnam in 1963. The modern AR-15 is a demilitarized version of the M16, and is now manufactured by several companies including Bushmaster, Colt and ArmaLite. It is a lightweight, small-caliber semi-automatic rifle, with a light recoil and a variety of optional barrel lengths and targeting/aiming devices. Minnesota Sen. Michelle Bachmann said during her presidential campaign that the AR-15 is her favorite gun “because you can be so accurate with it.” Depending on the make, model and options, an AR-15 can cost anywhere from $900 to $2000.
Because it falls under the federal definition of the term “assault weapon,” the AR-15 has long been a target of anti-gun legislation. “It was one of the weapons [specifically] banned by the Assault Weapons Ban legislation in 1994,” Christopher Koper, criminology professor at George Mason University tells TIME. According to the U.S. Code, an semiautomatic weapon can be “any repeating rifle which utilizes a portion of the energy of a firing cartridge to extract the fired cartridge case and chamber the next round, and which requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.”
But one of the other focuses of the law were large-capacity magazines he said, which are designed to hold more than 10 rounds, which can also be used with the AR-15. “That’s the key to the weapons’ firepower. It gives a shooter a high number of shots without having to stop and reload,” said Koper.
After making sure firearms are kept out of the hands of “dangerous, high risk people,” says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “We need to talk about guns no one ought to be able to possess. We ought to be looking at civilian versions of military-style weapons that have features that are military-oriented, and that it’s hard to imagine that civilians need to have.”
The military-style features that Vernick is talking about include flash suppresors, to disperse gases coming from the muzzle, thereby reducing its flash; a bayonet lug, which allows the attachment of a bayonet; and telescoping stocks, that help to collapse the weapon for use in tighter spaces.
Bushmaster, based in Madison, N.C., was founded in 1973 by Richard Dyke, who sold the company to Cerebrus Capital Managment in 2006 before he went on to open firearms maker Windham Weaponry. The company sells an entire catalogue of firearms for hunting, competitive sport shooting, military and law enforcement uses, as well as attachments and accessories. It’s currently part of the Freedom Group, a conglomerate of arms manufacturers whose 13 brands also include Remington, Marlin Firearms, and DPMS/Panther. In 2011, the company had sales of $775 million, according to its annual report, and sold 1.1 million rifles and 2 billion rounds of ammunition.
Bushmaster’s past entanglements with mass shootings have not been good for business. The company paid $500,000 as part of a $2.5 million settlement in the Beltway Sniper shootings, which prompted the firm to close its factory in 2010 and later reopen in Ilion, N.Y., a small town 80 miles west of Albany. With the Newtown shootings, however, it’s run into even more trouble. Not only has the company been publicly pilloried for an ad campaign that some said (in hindsight) promoted a culture of misogyny and violence, it’s also being put up for sale by Cerebrus because of the attention brought by the Newtown tragedy.
“We believe that this decision allows us to meet our obligations to the investors whose interests we are entrusted to protect without being drawn into the national debate that is more properly pursued by those with the formal charter and public responsibility to do so,” Cerebrus said in a statement.