In the wake of another shooting massacre at an Orlando nightclub earlier this month, the national debate over gun laws has once again been revived, playing out in dramatic fashion in the halls of Congress.
But while lawmakers hold sit-ins and grapple with tough questions over who can buy weapons, and how well buyers are vetted, another target for reform has emerged: The weapon itself.
According to NBC News, no fewer than 14 mass murders have been perpetrated using an AR-15 style assault rifle.
The list reads like a virtual encyclopedia of the worst killings in modern times. The shooters in Newtown, Aurora, Roseburg, San Bernardino, Santa Monica, and now Orlando, all used some version of the weapon to inflict mass violence.
Is the right to own an AR-15 protected by the Constitution?
Santa Clara Law Professor Deep Gulasekaram specializes in Second Amendment rights, and says determining the constitutionality of this style of weapon is not simple.
“The Second Amendment doesn’t protect ownership of any particular kind of gun, or any particular type of weapon,” Gulasekaram said.
To be clear, handguns cannot be banned outright. But after that, the judicial precedent is very limited.
Gulasekaram references the District of Columbia v. Heller case of 2008, in which the Supreme Court rejected an outright ban on handguns in D.C. as unconstitutional.
But before Heller, the court had gone decades without taking a case on gun rights, dating back possibly as far as the 1930’s, according to Gulasekaram.
The Supreme Court’s desire to stay out of defining the parameters of gun ownership was on display again this week, when it declined to hear two assault weapons bans in New York and Connecticut, passed directly in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings.
"There's speculation that what's happened is since 2008, since the Heller ruling, we're just all watching these mass shootings over and over again,” Gulasekaram said. “And the Supreme Court also sees these mass shootings, and I think that partly informs their distaste for taking another gun case."
Seven states currently have some sort of assault weapons ban, including California.
Defining an ‘AR-15,’ however, is inherently problematic.
As Jon Stokes notes in a highly-publicized article written for left-leaning website Vox, "Why Millions of Americans--Including Me--Own the AR-15," the weapon doesn’t fit into an umbrella definition because it’s highly adaptable.
“You can use the AR-15 platform to create anything from a pistol to a long-range, high-powered sniper rifle,” said Stokes.
It’s lethality depends largely on how it’s configured.
“Because it’s a modular, open source platform where any piece of it can be changed, from the caliber to the length to the stock ... it’s hard to really describe what it is,” Stokes said.
And many states have a hard time describing an AR-15.
If you look at the list of the weapons covered under the ban, or partial ban, in those seven states, there are hundreds of styles and no two lists are the same.
“There are lots of other guns that have this sort of capacity or capability,” Gulasekaram said. “Even handguns, for example, have the ability to have semi-automatic firing, have quick reloading and unloading of magazines. So that’s some of the difficulties of fashioning bans in this way.”
Under a federal law passed in 1986, no automatic weapons are legal to buy.