Post missing context about AR-15 rifles and mass shootings
Claim: AR-15 rifles were recently used in 12 mass shootings
As with other widespread incidents in the United States, the gun control legislation debate followed the news of mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado. 17 Americans died in the events.
A central question in the debate was whether to ban offensive weapons, which the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban defined as certain high-capacity semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines.
Shortly after the news of the shootings at a Boulder grocery store, Twitter user Adam C. Best, a progressive activist and founder of the FanSided sports website, posted a tweet detailing the AR-15 rifle with 12 high profile mass shootings in Has been associated for the past 10 years. The tweet was soon posted on Facebook; One post received over 2,400 reactions and 1,600 shares.
Best’s claim is largely true: at least one AR-15-style assault rifle was used except for one shootout. As we explain below, riflemen had multiple guns in several cases – including 23 in the Las Vegas gunman case.
USA TODAY asked Best for a comment. A Facebook page where the tweet was reposted, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fans, said it gave the impression that the tweet was true.
What is the AR-15 and how does it differ from other popular firearms?
An AR-15 is a type of semi-automatic or “self-loading” assault rifle.
In the sense of US law, the term “semi-automatic” as opposed to “automatic” means that the operator of the weapon must pull the trigger in order to fire each shot. NPR outlined its most famous features: it automatically reloads after each shot and holds around 30 bullets before an operator has to reload the weapon.
Called the “America’s Rifle” by the NRA, the AR-15 is known for its easy-to-modify design and lack of recoil or “blowback” after firing, which preserves the operator’s target and makes the shot more accurate, the Washington Post details in a Q&A on the gun.
While the AR-15 is not a machine gun, a user can modify the AR-15 to approximate the function of an automatic weapon by attaching a device called a “butt stick”, as is the case with shooting in Las Vegas was.
Shortly after the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, the Trump administration took action against shock stocks. The ATF issued a rule that changed the definition of “machine gun” to include bump stick devices, making them illegal (since civilians in the US are legally not allowed to own or use machine guns). However, on March 25, Bloomberg Law reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals had suspended the ban on the sixth circuit because it was likely unconstitutional in a lawsuit filed by Gun Owners of America, Inc. The future of the ban remains uncertain.
The Washington Post and NPR trace the history of the modern-day AR-15 until the 1950s when the original manufacturer ArmaLite (now Colt) developed the M-16 machine gun. The M-16 became the standard issue for American troops fighting in the Vietnam War.
After the war, the company named a semi-automatic version after itself (AR stands for “ArmaLite Rifle”, not for “assault rifle”) and marketed it to the public. Since the original patent has expired, the AR-15 is now the generic name for many variants developed by a wide variety of weapon manufacturers.
USA TODAY examined every shooting mentioned by Best and found that 11 out of 12 of the incidents listed involved the use of AR-15 style rifles. The only exception is shooting at the Orlando Pulse Nightclub, where the shooter used an assault rifle that is not considered an AR-15 variant.
The list below shows the weapons used in each shooting, as well as the number of victims and their dates. Click the headings for more information on the incidents from the US TODAY.
Boulder, Colorado (King Soopers Grocery Store)
- Date: March 10th
- Lost life: 10
- Weapon used: Ruger AR-556 pistol
The Washington Post reported that the prime suspect in the shooting, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol on March 16, just four days after the Colorado state’s two-year offensive weapons ban was blocked in court.
Orlando, Florida (Pulse Nightclub)
- Date: June 12, 2016
- Lost life: 49
- Weapon used: Sig Sauer MCX
The Sig Sauer MCX is marketed as a “modern sports rifle” and is very similar to the AR-15 in form and function. However, as explained in a Slate analysis, it is not an AR-15 variant because, instead of a direct impact system, a gas piston system is used to propel bullets out of the pistol. It’s also more modular so parts can be swapped out and customized more easily, says Tactical Life magazine.
Parkland, Florida (Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School)
Las Vegas (Highway 91 Country Music Festival)
- Date: October 1, 2017
- Lost life: 58
- Weapons used: In the gunman’s hotel suite, 23 different weapons were recovered, including several AR-15 rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the US reported TODAY.
Some of the AR-15 variants used in shooting in Las Vegas had a bump stick attached that allowed weapons to be fired about as fast as machine guns.
Aurora, Colorado (16th century cinema)
- Date: July 20, 2012
- Lost life: 12th
- Weapon used: A Smith & Wesson variant of the AR-15, a 12-gauge pumping action shotgun and at least one 0.40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, according to the New York Times.
Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, Connecticut)
Waffle House (Nashville, Tennessee)
San Bernadino, California (Christmas Party at the Inland Regional Center):
- Date: 2nd December 2015
- Lost life: 14th
- Weapon used: Two variants of the AR-15 (Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle and DPMS Panther Arms assault rifle), a Smith & Wesson pistol and a Lama pistol, according to the New York Times.
Midland / Odessa (cities in West Texas)
Poway Synagogue (near San Diego)
Sutherland Springs (Texas Rural Worship Service)
Tree of Life Synagogue (Pittsburgh)
More:Suspect charged on 29 counts in “terrible” shootings in Pittsburgh synagogue
Our assessment: Lack of context
We rate this claim as MISSING CONTEXT as it could be misleading without additional information. All but one of the shots involved the use of an AR-15 style assault rifle, and the shots that did not use an AR-15 used a very similar assault rifle. However, the lack of context could lead the reader to believe that the shooters used only one AR-15 in all of the incidents listed if they had multiple weapons in several cases – 23 of them in the case of the Las Vegas gunman.
Our sources for verifying facts:
- Adam Best (@adamcbest) March 22nd, Tweet
- Axios, September 7, 2019, What the deadliest mass shootings have in common
- Bloomberg Law, March 25, Federal Bump Stock Ban blocked by Divided Appeals Court
- Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau, last updated February 21, 2019, Bump Stocks
- CBS News, March 26, Gun used in mass shootings in Boulder was legally purchased, the police chief says
- GunDigest, June 18, 2014, 6 Facts About AR-15 Direct Impingement Vs. Gas Pistons
- The New York Times Interactive, last updated February 16, 2018, How They Got Their Guns
- The New York Times, July 23, 2012, Aurora Gunman’s arsenal: shotgun, semi-automatic rifle, and a pistol at the end
- NBC News, July 12, 2016, AR-15 rifle used in Orlando Massacre has bloody pedigree
- NPR, February 28, 2018, A Brief History of the AR-15
- Schiefer, June 14, 2016, Omar Mateen had a “modern sports rifle”
- The Tennessean, April 22, 2018, Waffle House shooting: Police confirm that AR-15 was used in the attack on the Antioch Diner
- US law firm for the northern district of Texas, Jan. 7, Man who sold the Midland / Odessa AR-15 gunner
- U.S. Law Firm for the Western District of Penn., Jan 29, 2019, Additional charges for the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting
- United States District Court for the Southern District of California, May 9, 2019, United States Final Appeal against John Timothy Earnest
- US TODAY, November 12, 2019, the Supreme Court refuses to block the gunmaker’s lawsuit filed by Sandy Hook families
- USA TODAY, October 3rd, 2017, What weapons were used while shooting in Las Vegas?
- Washington Post, Feb.15, 2018, It’s time to bring back the ban on assault weapons, gun violence experts say
- Washington Post, Feb. 16, 2018, AR-15 Basic Questions
- Washington Post, March 23, days after Boulder bans ban on assault weapons lifted, community mourns another mass shooting in America: “It hurts”
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Our fact-checking is partially supported by a grant from Facebook.