MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The weapon used in yesterday's shooting was an AR-15 rifle. And if that sounds familiar, that's because it's the same type of gun used to kill first-graders and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The San Bernardino shooters carried AR-15-style rifles. The man who killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando used one, too. And on the Las Vegas Strip, site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, among the weapons stockpiled was an AR-15. Why? Why is it the weapon of choice in so many of these shootings? Here to help answer that question is reporter Alain Stephens of KUT in Austin. He's part of NPR's criminal justice team. He's also former military, having served in the Coast Guard and Air Force. Hi, Alain.
ALAIN STEPHENS, BYLINE: Hi, how are you doing?
KELLY: I'm all right, thanks. Why do people, determined to carry out this kind of mass casualty attack, why do they so often choose an AR-15?
STEPHENS: Well, I think part of it is because the AR-15 as a weapon is simply a very popular weapon. It's very much woven into the DNA of America's gun culture. And part of that kind of goes into its ease of use, its availability and, you know, it's just a commonplace weapon within the firearms market.
KELLY: When you say ease of use, an AR-15 is a semi-automatic, which means you need to squeeze the trigger for each bullet.
STEPHENS: Correct, correct.
KELLY: It's also very accurate as these rifles go. Is that right?
STEPHENS: Yes, yes. So it was developed in the 1950s. A lot of people feel that, you know, the AR stands for assault rifle or automatic rifle, but, actually, it stands for Armalite. That's the original company that developed it. And a variant of this rifle was chosen by the U.S. military and saw its first major-scale deployment within the Vietnam War. And just like any weapon that's chosen by the military, there's a couple factors that have to be decided upon, and one of those is reliability, accuracy and ease of use. You have to have people that are able to train with it and learn this weapon very readily, and that has a trickle-down effect because all of those components kind of enter into the civilian market. And that's why the civilian market has a tendency to gravitate towards this rifle.
KELLY: How much do they cost if I walked into a gun store today?
STEPHENS: One of the things that we have seen in recent years after the assault weapons ban ended in 2004 was this really huge explosion of these boutique kind of rifle companies that are producing these very high-end rifles that are very customizable. Some of those can, you know, range in the thousands of dollars. But on the lower end for a basic, very kind of skeletal rifle, you know, you could buy one for $800 at, you know, your regular sporting goods store.
KELLY: What are the key arguments made both in favor of restricting sales of this type of gun to the general public and by people who argue that this gun should be widely available?
STEPHENS: As far as restricting this, you know, a lot of people are pointing to the idea that, listen, these features - the vertical grip, the large capacity magazine - these are things that are too powerful for the civilian market to need for self-defense or hunting and that these things should be limited. There's also this kind of argument about, well, who can access these weapons in the first place that we need to have tougher background checks? On the flip side of that argument, though, a lot of people say the AR-15 is no different than many other rifles out there but doesn't have that kind of title of being the preferred weapon of mass shooters.
KELLY: Another argument I've heard made by people who support unrestricted sales of the AR-15 is that it's not actually the gun that most Americans are going to die from. If they're dying in gun violence, it's much more likely to be a handgun, right?
STEPHENS: Yeah. You know, according to the latest Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms tracing reports, handguns account for about 60 percent of the guns that are being traced back to crimes. Rifles of any type are - only account for about 13 percent. Handguns are still kind of the more popular weapon being used in crime.
KELLY: Thanks, Alain.
STEPHENS: Thank you.
KELLY: That's Alain Stephens of KUT in Austin - also part of NPR's criminal justice team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.