Six days before a Colorado grocery store opened fire and 10 people were killed, a 21-year-old suspect in the massacre bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol – a gun with a controversial history in the national gun regulation debate.
The Ruger looks like a rifle, works like one, and even takes the same ammunition as the infamous AR-15 that was used in many US mass murders. But the Ruger is not a rifle – at least not under current gun laws.
The pistol is considered Ruger’s alternative to the AR-15 rifle and is smaller and more maneuverable than a rifle. It is also not bound by the stringent regulations a rifle its size would meet, an issue that shed light on the nation’s gun laws and sparked calls for change.
“If you cut the back end of the AR-15 and shorten the muzzle – the front part where the bullet exits – it’s the same,” said Christopher Herrmann, former New York police officer and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You took that deadly AR-15 weapon and now covered it.”
Like the AR-15, the weapon is semi-automatic. It is a portable “weapon of mass destruction,” said Herrmann – “all the comforts of a sedan, but in a smaller car.”
For the Colorado shooting suspect, the Ruger AR-556 pistol had another benefit: it made purchasing the gun quick and easy. A rifle of the same size would have had to undergo several additional checks, including a background check that would have required several types of ID and even fingerprints. The suspect should have paid additional taxes and possibly waited months for the gun to be registered.
But the Colorado suspect didn’t have to wade through the extra red tape for the Ruger since it’s a pistol.
Boulder police did not specify what weapons were used in the attack. In an affidavit, authorities found the suspect was found carrying two guns, one of which was repeatedly referred to as a rifle, and said he bought the Ruger AR-556 pistol days before the attack. A spokeswoman for the Boulder Police Department would not clarify on Thursday what weapons the suspect was carrying during the attack.
A look at the Ruger AR-556 pistol
A new Ruger AR-556 pistol can range in price from $ 900 to $ 950. The price of new AR-15 rifles ranges from $ 500 to several thousand.
Typically, the Ruger AR-556 pistols have a capacity of 30 rounds, similar to rifles. This offers the potential to carry more bullets in the chamber than most Glocks or smaller pistols, which can typically carry around 10 to 15 bullets, although Colorado law does not allow magazines with more than 15 cartridges.
The pistols do not use 9mm cartridges like those normally found in most smaller pistols. Instead, they are equipped with the same high-speed ammunition used on AR-15-style rifles originally designed for military use.
The pistols mirror an AR-15 in most cases, but have a shorter barrel, models are between 9.5 and 10.5 inches long and can be operated with one hand. For comparison, Ruger’s AR-556 rifle has a barrel that is about half a foot longer at 16.1 inches.
The pistols come with an adjustable stabilizing strut, an accessory that straps around the arm to make it easier to fire a weapon with one hand. According to Ruger, the braces help “improve accuracy, balance and recoil management.”
The buttress essentially replaces a butt stock that, like rifles, sits on the end of most long guns to absorb recoil.
Why is the Ruger AR-556 a pistol and not a rifle? Is that important?
Firearms are defined and categorized at the federal level under the Arms Act passed in 1968. The Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau, which helps regulate weapons, describes how different weapons are categorized and the steps required to purchase one.
The Weapons Act defines a pistol as a weapon intended to fire a bullet with a short shaft that is “intended to be grasped with one hand”. The photos accompanying the definition on the ATF website show a common depiction of a pistol, not the longer barreled gun that the boulder shooting suspect purchased.
The definition doesn’t mention anything about the length of a barrel, which means that longer pistols like the Ruger AR-556 that flip a rifle can still be classified as a pistol if they meet the criteria, said Rick Vasquez, a former ATF Firearms Law Enforcement Officer Who owns a gun store that offers training on firearms identification and regulations?
A rifle is defined by law as a weapon that is intended to be “fired from the shoulder” and which is designed to fire a single bullet each time the trigger is pulled.
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“If I can hold it in one hand and fire it in one hand, and it’s designed that way, it’s just a pistol,” he said. He added that these AR-style pistols have become a favorite of gun buyers.
“The pistol version has become extremely, extremely popular because it is small, a pistol that fires a rifle-caliber cartridge, which gives it a lot of power and is very agile compared to a normal pistol cartridge,” said Vasquez.
Vasquez noted that the gun’s compact nature is a feature that both helps hide it and makes it more maneuverable. In a way, however, the gun mirrors a short barrel rifle, which because of these precise factors is heavily regulated by the National Firearms Act. A short barrel rifle is defined in the law as a rifle with a barrel shorter than 16 inches. The Ruger AR-556 pistol has a barrel from 9.5 to 10 inches.
The law regulates certain weapons and attachments, including machine guns, silencers, and sawed-off shotguns. There are strict rules and a lengthy process to buy these guns. Under the regulations, a person must be approved by the ATF, pass a comprehensive background check, submit photos and fingerprints, fully register the weapon and pay a tax.
Vasquez said the process usually takes months. The suspect in the boulder shooting bought the Ruger AR-556 six days before the attack.
Growing concern about AR pistols
Scientists and law enforcement officers have long been concerned about the proliferation of AR-style pistols, which has been around for more than a decade, said Garen Wintemute, ambulance doctor and director of the University of California’s Davis Prevention Research Program Rifle Association.
“The concern is that these guns overall represent a very significant increase in firing power and lethality over traditional handguns. There is potential for them to be made in large numbers at home by people with criminal intent,” he said.
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“Whether it’s violent extremists, political violence, or some other kind of crime, it has been a problem for a long time. And I think many of us who have had this problem were surprised that they are no more prominent than they are. It can be change if we don’t nip it in the bud. “
The city of Boulder passed a measure in 2018 aimed at eliminating offensive weapons. It was knocked over in court 10 days before the King Soopers shooting. Authorities have yet to say where the suspect bought the Ruger pistol. Even if it was bought in Boulder, it’s unclear whether it would definitely have been covered by the town’s earlier ban, which included many semi-automatic rifles and pistols.
Herrmann, the former New York police officer, said he was concerned the guns would be sold off the shelf. “There’s definitely no point for it other than to kill. That’s what it’s designed for,” he said.
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Wintemute said he was even more concerned that the gun style could easily be made as a ghost weapon – firearms that weren’t made in regulated manufacturing facilities with no serial numbers or traces of paper.
“It’s easy to make a Ghost Gun AR rifle, and I know of no reason why it wouldn’t be easy to make a Ghost Gun AR pistol at home,” he said. “The time to intervene to prevent these developments is now.”
Less than a week ago, following the Boulder shootings and the Atlanta area shootings less than a week ago, President Joe Biden spoke vigorously about passing gun reform laws, saying “we must act” to pass gun background checks and ban offensive weapons.
However, at his first press conference as president on Thursday, Biden was only asked once about gun control. When asked if he would send laws to Congress, sign executive orders, or send money to cities and states to regulate gun control, Biden replied, “All of the above.” Then he turned quickly to talk about the infrastructure legislation he plans to reveal next week.