Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

About the Rifle Used in the Newtown School Shooting


At a press briefing Saturday, Connecticut medical examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver said the 20 children and six adult women killed in Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school were all shot with a .233-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Witnesses report that as many as 100 shots were fired. The shooter, Adam Lanza, was carrying several 30-round magazines.

The rifle, and the two handguns found at the scene, as well as a shotgun found in Lanza’s car, belonged to his mother. Nancy Lanza, contrary to earlier reports, wasn’t a kindergarten teacher at the school. After a divorce from her wealthy husband, Adams’s father, she didn’t need to work, and instead focused on her hobbies: gardening and guns. Those close to the Lanzas told reporters Nancy got the guns for protection and enjoyed trips to the firing range. The rifle used in the shooting can be purchased for about $950.

The AR-15′s firing capability lives up to its menacing appearance. It’s the civilian semi-automatic version of the military’s M-16 rifle and fires one round per pull of the trigger before reloading itself. So while it cannot unleash a hail of bullets like a fully-automatic weapon, it can fire as quickly as the gunman can pull the trigger. Independent firearms consultant and former head of the firearms lab for Massachusetts state police Ronald Scott states told the Daily News that the gun was first used in the Vietnam War. A combat weapon in essence, the AR-15 is the subject of some contention when it comes to home defense and hunting.

.233 caliber rounds. Photo: Getty Images.

Guns and Ammo article titled ”Long Guns, Short Yardage: Is .223 the Best Home Defense Caliber?” evaluates .223 caliber rifles as home defense weapons.  The article notes that gun owners have long debated whether a pistol or rifle is best for defense of a person’s home and family. Writer James Tarr notes that many people believe a .223 is inferior for home defense because of concern for the “overpenetration” of the house itself. However, Tarr observes that materials such as drywall sheets and hollow-core doors are easily penetrated by bullets of any caliber and most American homes and apartments are made of such materials.

Tarr elaborates that “when talking about the effectiveness of rifle bullets on people, ballisticians and armchair commandos throw around a number of technical terms” but that the “simple fact” is that bullets that “zip right through” will cause a person to bleed to death but will not immediately disable that person as a threat. Thus, there are specific bullets designed for the .223 rifle that fragment on striking a person, instantly disabling that individual. As Scott told the Daily News, “What makes the .223 so lethal is that it travels so fast that when it strikes someone it has the tendency to be unstable. It can tumble a bit and fragment. If it hits someone in the ribs or leg, the chance is fairly good it’s going to fragment somewhat and create a huge wound path. When it strikes someone and goes through them it creates this tremendous wind channel, like the wake of a boat.”

In deer hunting circles, some consider .223 too small a caliber to be ethical. Some states, like Virginia, have banned the .223 for deer hunting for that reason. However, Jared Kutney, a rifle and pistol development manager for Federal Premium Ammunition, told NRA Hunters’ Rights that caliber is not the only consideration when it comes to lethality: “Penetration and transfer of energy, or expansion of the bullet, are both critical to achieve a lethal shot.” Kutney added that the weapon’s light weight–about 8 lbs loaded–and low recoil make it perfect for young shooters. Russell Hanoman, a friend of Nancy’s, told Today that Nancy wanted to “introduce [her sons] to the guns to teach them, especially Adam, a sense of responsibility.”

In a print advertisement that has come under scrutiny since Friday’s tragic events, a photo of the Bushmaster AR-15 is displayed next to the words “consider your man card reissued.” Smaller print at the bottom of the ad reads, “If it’s good enough for the professional, it’s good enough for you.” Indeed, the AR-15′s effectiveness, combined with its heavy-duty military appearance, has appealed to a certain caliber of shooter.

A similar AR-15 semiautomatic rifle was used in the recent Oregon mall shooting by Jacob Roberts.

A .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle was the weapon of choice for infamous Washington DC snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

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