From a legal standpoint, Omar Mateen bought his deadliest weapon at the right place and the right time.
Authorities believe the 29-year-old Florida resident and licensed security guard shot most of his victims with an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle that he purchased legally in Port St. Lucie earlier in the month.
New York, California, the District of Columbia and five other states have laws banning the sale of that type of weapon. Eight states and the District of Columbia also prohibit the sale of ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets — a crucial accessory for the sort of rapid-fire carnage that unfolded early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando.
“It’s a minority of states that have these type of laws in place,” said Ari Freilich, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. “The evidence is they do help.”
While Florida doesn’t have barriers to purchasing the kind of military-style rifle Mateen used, a short-lived federal law regulating that kind of weapon could have complicated his purchase. Enacted in 1994, the so-called “assault weapons ban” targeted the same type of rifle Mateen purchased, and gun-control advocates are using Sunday’s massacre as a rallying call to revive the law.
“Florida’s doesn’t regulate assault weapons, or 50-caliber rifles, or large-capacity ammunition magazines,” presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton told CNN on Monday morning, rattling off a string of protections she sees lacking in Florida’s gun-control laws. “Now, you know, that’s a lot of nots. And I believe strongly that common sense gun-safety reform across our country would make a difference.”
Her Republican rival, Donald Trump, characterized more gun laws as hindering chances of preventing another Orlando massacre, saying armed civilians could have saved lives by shooting back at Mateen.
“If you had some guns in that club the night that this took place, if you had guns on the other side, you wouldn’t have had the tragedy that you had,” Trump said during his own CNN interview. Later, he told radio host Howie Carr: “One of the many problems with the gun control is that the bad guys will have the guns. The good guys won’t.”
A day after Orlando became home to the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, Florida’s gun-control laws came under national scrutiny amid a larger debate over whether legislation can ever offer much protection against armed assailants.
Mateen underwent a federal background check to purchase the AR-15 and a handgun at the St. Lucie Shooting Center, and was cleared for a concealed-weapons permit by state regulators, according to officials and media reports.
“He was fingerprinted, he successfully completed the application, had a criminal background check,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Monday. “There is nothing in that record that would have disqualified this individual, who was a U.S. citizen, who had a clean criminal record, who underwent a background check and mental health screening, from receiving those licenses.”
Some notorious mass shootings have an AR-15 as their common denominator: The rifle was used in the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, where 26 children and staff were killed; in last year’s San Bernardino shooting, where 14 were killed; and in Aurora, Colorado where 12 were killed. New York enacted its AR-15 ban in the wake of Sandy Hook, though modifications to the rifles can allow sellers to evade the restrictions.
Democrats point to stalled federal legislation that would ban the sale of AR-15s nationwide. But experts note loopholes from the last time Washington tried to clamp down on the sale of guns capable of firing dozens of bullets in a minute’s time.
Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said the federal ban, which expired in 2004, would not have made much of a difference in Mateen’s gun-shopping choices.
“Although the AR-15 itself was banned, the shooter still would have been able to buy an AR-15-type rifle,” Kleck wrote in an email, “since copy-cat versions of the AR-15 continued to be available for sale as long as they were not identical to the AR-15.”
As a semi-automatic rifle, the AR-15 fires one bullet with every pull of the trigger — a process that typically means 45 rounds of ammunition per minute. Mateen’s rampage has been blamed on 49 shooting deaths and roughly as many wounded victims, though the circumstances of the killings have not been fully explained by law-enforcement authorities.
Florida requires a three-day waiting period for purchasing handguns, but not for so-called “long guns” like the AR-15 and other rifles. State law also requires permits to conceal handguns, but permits aren’t needed for rifles like an AR-15.
“We have consistently ranked Florida at or near the very bottom in terms of how easy it is for a dangerous person to gain access to a firearm,” said Brian Malte, national policy director for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The threshold for permits is very low.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.
This post was updated to change the AR-15’s rate of fire from rounds per second to rounds per minute, which is the more typical way to describe the weapon,