Editor's note: In the hours after the mass shooting at an Orlando night club, law enforcement said the gunman’s weapons included an “AR-15-type assault rifle.” Law enforcement later said the shooter had used a different high-capacity, semi-automatic rifle, the Sig Sauer MCX rifle. This story was reported and written before the identity of the weapon was changed.
The AR-15 used to kill 49 people at an Orlando nightclub is among the most-preferred rifles in the United States.
As the worst mass shooting in U.S. history renews calls for outlawing the gun, recreational enthusiasts in Minnesota are pushing back against critics who call it an assault weapon.
“Assault is an action,” said Garrett Streitz, a salesman at Alexandria, Minn.-based Alex Pro Firearms who takes umbrage at the phrase. “We’re just people who like to hunt and like to shoot and there’s people that give so many good [gun owners] a bad name.”
While far more homicides are committed with handguns than with rifles, AR-15s have been the weapon of choice in some of the worst mass shootings in recent years. Omar Mateen used one to attack patrons of the gay club Pulse early Sunday, as did the perpetrators of attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., which left 14 dead, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 28 dead, including 20 children.
A witness at a weekend party south of the Twin Cities where four people were shot said someone fired an AR-15 into the air in an effort to break up the party.
The federal government does not track exactly how many AR-15s are in circulation, but experts put that number at 10 million to 12 million across the country, according to the New York Times.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Monday called AR-15s “weapons of war” and vowed to outlaw them if she wins office.
Attempts at restricting AR-15s and similar weapons have been more numerous at the federal level than in Minnesota, where the Legislature is friendlier to gun owners’ interests. Legislators last year passed measures legalizing silencers, expanding gun permit reciprocity with other states, and other measures favorable to gun owners.
A proposal to ban AR-15s in 2013 failed as hundreds of gun rights advocates showed up at the state Capitol to make their case.
“The nature of the vitriol that came my way from all over the country, you simply wouldn’t believe,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who sponsored the measure that year.
She said she still receives comments from constituents asking for stronger gun control laws. “There’s huge frustration on the part of the public,” she said.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said the measure failed because “nobody has been convinced that it will do any good.”
Cornish, who owns an AR-15 for hunting, said the guns are accurate, high-quality and dependable.
“When some legislators get up there saying I don’t need an AR-15 to go hunting, what they don’t know through their ignorance is that this is actually the number one rifle for sporting,” Cornish said.
“We are deeply saddened about the tragic loss of 49 people and injuries to 53 others in Orlando on Sunday, and recognize that the AR-15 and similar assault-style weapons have played major roles in this and similar mass shootings,” said the Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota.
“At the federal level, we support H.R. 4269, the assault-weapons ban that was introduced in December by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.,” Bence said. At the state level, her group’s focus is on passage of a comprehensive background checks bill, a gun violence protective order bill and on adding individuals on the terror watch list to the list of prohibited firearms purchasers.
State Rep. Dan Schoen has unsuccessfully pushed gun control measures, including one this year mandating universal background checks on buyers.
“If banning a particular style of gun is your wish, well I wouldn’t hold your breath in Minnesota,” said Schoen, a Cottage Grove DFLer. “If people want change, then they have to start acting with the same fervor and the same energy … the corporate gun lobby does.”
‘Like a round of golf’
The M-16 rifle was used by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War and was later modified for civilian use as AR-15 rifles. It is commonly used in the Upper Midwest to hunt deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and other varmints.
Mike Ahlman, of Ahlman’s Guns in Morristown, Minn., said the rifles come with heavy barrels and can fire rounds of various calibers — including some large enough to hunt bear, moose and other big game. He said he owns six of them.
Beyond hunting, AR-15s are popular with target shooters.
“A strong argument could be made that the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America today,’’ said Erik Pakieser, a Minnesota firearms instructor and Army veteran.
Besides its popularity in hunting, the gun has become desirable for sport shooting and self-defense, he said. The guns cost around $1,000 each, but many buyers spend more to customize them.
Ammunition clips for the AR-15 set the gun apart from shotguns and more traditional hunting rifles, but the ARs aren’t fully automatic. They release one round for each trigger squeeze, regardless of the clip size. Most hunters choose five-, 10- or 20-round clips depending on what they are shooting.
Staff writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.