At the center of many gun related tragedies and the debate that follows, is the type of weapon used. No weapon is more scrutinized on one side, and supported on the other, than the AR-15. Gun advocates call it a useful home defense and hunting rifle, while others see it as the kind of weapon no civilian should have.
The basic body of the AR-15 is also used in a three-round burst M4 format, used by many law enforcement agencies and a fully automatic M16 format, the weapon of choice for the military.
Clay County Sheriff Kenny Lemons told Newschannel 6 each of his patrol vehicles is equipped with an AR-15, and it's used to compliment the .45 caliber sidearm carried by his deputies. Sheriff Lemons said, "We use the AR-15 like we do any other tool. I think the public perceives it simply as an assault weapon that's used for nothing more than military and law enforcement purposes, when in fact, it couldn't be further from the truth."
One man who sees a civilian application is Wichita County Sheriff's Captain, Randy Elliott. He said, "I also have one that is this version, in a hunting version, that my 8-year-old daughter uses to go hunting with."
Captain Elliott's reasoning for letting his daughter shoot the AR-15 is simple: It's just the right gun for her. He said, "This gun does not have any kick, its a lighter version. She can handle the gun, she can maneuver it when its set up for her."
Both Sheriff Lemons and Captain Elliot agree, the AR-15 has a bad reputation, one it doesn't deserve. Lemons said, "That weapon is no more a bad weapon than any other weapon, its not the weapon that does the bad thing its the person that has the weapon." Elliot added much of the bad perception comes from the weapons look.
We wanted to get a feel for what these weapons are truly capable of, so we hit the range with the WCSO. Captain Elliot and another Deputy shot rounds from a single-shot AR-15 used for hunting and an M4 with three round burst. Both weapons produced similar results, both shooting the .223 round.
Sheriff Lemons also showed us the .223 round when we visited with him. While it has a larger casing, Lemons and his deputies rely on their .45 caliber rounds for stopping power. He said, "The reasoning that I went with, behind my decision was, its a bigger bullet, it causes more damage to whatever you're trying to stop. The fights over."
Back at the range we decided to test the larger caliber pistol rounds, shooting .40 caliber rounds from an MP-5 and Captain Elliott's sidearm. This time, the difference in hole size was clear, the pistol rounds punched a hole nearly twice as large through the paper and cardboard. Elliott said, "If you look at the damage done, the ballistics done, the .40 caliber or the .45 caliber pistol is going to just as much, or more, damage the .223.
The AR-15 and similar weapons are used in numerous incidents across the country, including Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. But, many of those shooters also carried hand guns. In Newtown, Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster XM-15, only to shoot his way through a locked glass door.
Nevertheless, the AR-15 remains the focal point of attacks in Washington and across the country. In February, Vice President Joe Biden said, "You don't need an AR-15. Its harder to aim, its harder to use and in fact you don't need 30 rounds to defend yourself. Buy a shotgun."
Captain Elliott said, at close range, small pistols can do just as much, or more damage than the highly debated AR-15. He said, "A pistol is going to just as much, or more damage at close range than this weapon would inside a school room."
Proposed gun legislation to expand background checks and limit magazine sizes has all but died in congress, despite heavy lobbying from the Obama administration and families of the Newtown victims.