A series examining the AR-15, a weapon with a singular hold on a divided nation
About the terminology
Colt acquired the AR-15 patent and trademark from Armalite in 1959. The patent expired, leaving many companies to produce their own weapons, commonly called AR-style rifles. While Colt still holds the trademark, “AR-15” has become a ubiquitous term for a popular style of gas-operated, magazine-fed semiautomatic rifles. For this reason, we refer to the rifle broadly as the AR-15 in this series.
The first gunshot cracked through the air just after 1 a.m.
Then came another shot, and another. They kept coming, again and again, each shot thundering across downtown Dayton, Ohio. In just half a minute, more than three dozen gunshots echoed through the crowded streets.
Dion Green recalls hitting the sidewalk next to his father and fiancee, who had come out with him in August 2019. It had been a routine Saturday night: people dancing, drinking, standing in line to get into a bar, waiting for tacos outside. Green barely had time to drop down as the masked shooter ran by and kept firing. All around Green, bullets ripped into people’s heads, chests, backs, arms and legs. People ran from the carnage, diving behind parked cars and scrambling into nearby bars and clubs, piling on top of one another as they huddled on the floor.
“It was like war,” Green said. “And I got angry. Because why was there a full-on war going on in the middle of the street?”
Thirty-two seconds after that first shot, the barrage ended when police killed the gunman. But the toll was already immense.
The gunman, shooting an AR-15-style weapon, had fired off 41 bullets, hitting more than two dozen people and killing nine of them — including Derrick Fudge, Green’s father.
Police officers at the scene of the massacre in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people in August 2019. The gunman used an AR-15. (John Minchillo/AP; Dayton Police Department)
In the aftermath of the Dayton massacre and another hours earlier in El Paso, all the familiar debates ignited over guns, assault weapons bans, mental health interventions and red-flag laws. Yet much of the public discussion overlooked a key factor in Dayton, something that connected the massacre to the carnage unleashed by mass shooters in Orlando, Las Vegas, Buffalo and other communities: the ammunition magazines that can enable gunmen to fire a hail of bullets without needing to stop and reload.
Those magazines are increasingly seen as an area where policy changes could lessen the carnage that has become emblematic of attacks waged with AR-15s and other guns, according to a growing body of research and interviews with experts and law enforcement veterans. An emerging consensus among these experts — and one that has taken hold in some state legislatures — is that mandating smaller magazines would force mass shooters to pause to reload, allowing people to flee or fight back.
Comparing magazine sizes
Most states do not limit magazine sizes. But within the past year, lawmakers in four states have added restrictions capping magazine sizes at anywhere from 10 to 17 rounds — and Oregon voters in November approved a 10-round limit. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a bill in January that included a ban on the sale of long-gun magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Such efforts, however, face growing legal challenges from gun rights advocates — and the issue could ultimately wind up with the Supreme Court ruling on a pivotal question: whether the right to bear arms extends to these ammunition magazines.
The court’s ruling last year overturning a New York gun law has inspired a new wave of lawsuits by firearms advocates, who argue that magazine restrictions are unconstitutional and endanger law-abiding citizens who could need them for self-defense.
“It’s a different era,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, a pro-firearms organization mounting several legal challenges to magazine restrictions. “We think the Second Amendment wins on this every time now.”
Proponents of the restrictions say the value of the limits comes down to numbers: Fewer bullets fired means more lives could be saved. Something, they say, has to be done in the face of all the bloodshed — and they reject the notion that larger devices are protected by the Constitution.
“The Second Amendment, which I support and I respect, makes no mention of ammunition,” said Rhode Island state Rep. Justine Caldwell (D), who sponsored a ban that passed last summer. “Nobody has a constitutional right to a 100-round magazine.”
In Dayton, the shooter wielded a 100-round drum magazine for his brief but deadly rampage.
“If he was using a 30-round magazine, he would at least have to reload once,” said Richard Biehl, who was Dayton’s police chief at the time of the shooting. “A 15-round magazine, he would reload twice. That could be six lives saved in that particular incident. That’s why I think it matters.”
The American gun debate over high-capacity magazines
As the AR-15 has become a cultural symbol, so too have magazines, which can jut out from the bottom of guns.
There’s no universal definition for what size is considered “high capacity.” Some states have a narrow definition, passing laws that ban anything with more than 10 rounds. Magazines with at least 30 rounds are considered the standard among larger devices; the largest can hold 100 rounds or more.
Usually made of hard plastic, a typical 30-round magazine is about seven inches long and an inch thick — roughly the size of a television remote control — with a slight curve to trace the bullets within. They are readily available for sale online, often for under $20. Inside, a small spring pushes the new bullets toward the gun, feeding them into the actual weapon.
Magazines with 20 or more bullets have been around in some form at least since the 1800s. They emerged as popular accessories only in recent decades. The first civilian AR-15 rifle debuted in 1964 with a device that held five rounds, and during the Vietnam War era, the military relied on those with 20 rounds.
Over time, technological advances made it easier to produce them reliably and affordably out of plastic.
So when Congress passed the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, it also prohibited magazines with more than 10 rounds. When the weapons ban expired in 2004, that restriction also lifted. Now, in a country with an estimated 400 million guns, there are also millions of magazines with at least 30 rounds, according to gun rights groups and court filings.
They are advertised as easy to use and deeply convenient for gun owners. One company, Magpul, boasts a 60-round drum that it calls “the best high capacity drum in the world.” Sig Sauer touts one with 30 rounds of 9mm ammunition by promising that it will let users “spend less time loading magazines and more time shooting at the range.”
Workers assemble 30-round rifle magazines at Magpul in Erie, Colo., in 2013. (Photos by Brennan Linsley/AP)
Gun advocates say that today, these devices are the rule, not the exception. Many modern gunmakers now ship their AR-style rifles with 30-round magazines standard.
When one is affixed to an AR-15, it is part of the rifle’s identity, the iconography that has turned the gun into as much a symbol as a weapon. That’s how the gun is shown on protest signs and T-shirts, cementing its image in the culture.
The fight over magazines has now become the American gun debate in a nutshell — an argument over a device that is cherished by some and condemned by others. For the people who own and use them, they are simply a part of life.
Paul Lewis, who owns a property management company in Maryland, extolled the virtues of firing dozens of rounds at a time during a recent visit to a gun range north of Dulles International Airport.
“It’s fun,” Lewis, 39, said shortly before sliding a 40-round device into a Ruger AR-556. And not having to reload so much, he said, “saves your thumbs.”
Lewis took aim at a nearby target and fired, emptying the magazine in nine seconds.
He visits the range at least once a week, both to practice with a handgun he carries for self-defense and to unwind. Since shooting requires full concentration, Lewis said, he stops worrying about anything else.
Limiting the number of bullets in his magazines during these trips “would suck,” he said, “because that’s more times that I have to stop and say, ‘Okay, load up another 10, load up another 10.’”
More importantly, Lewis said, magazine restrictions would make law-abiding gun owners less safe from criminals who might disregard the bans. “How can I protect myself if I don’t have enough ammo?” Lewis said.
A gun restriction could save lives
In 2019, a gunman wielding an AR-15-style rifle burst into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., killing one person and injuring three others while emptying a 10-round magazine.
When the attacker ran out of bullets, he tried and failed to reload another 10-round magazine, then fled as “several members of the congregation moved to confront him,” an FBI affidavit said.
This episode — which ended with the shooter’s arrest after the FBI said he called 911, made antisemitic remarks and confessed — crystallizes what law enforcement veterans and experts say can happen when shooting stops: a break and, for the potential victims, a chance.
“That moment to reload, it’s the linchpin of the event,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who ran the bureau’s active shooter program.
“If there is a way during that time or when the rounds in that weapon are expended to intervene,” she said, “that is the difference between a few and dozens injured or killed.”
Academic researchers agree, with numerous studies in recent years finding that laws restricting magazine sizes reduce casualties.
One study found that almost two-thirds of mass shootings with at least six fatalities over nearly three decades involved magazines with more than 10 rounds — and that the death tolls in those cases far exceeded the number of fatalities in attacks with smaller magazines.
A person with experience using guns can reload quickly, but in most mass shootings a shooter might take eight to 10 seconds to reload, said Louis Klarevas, a research professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who studied nearly three decades of data.
“No matter where you are, stop, look around you,” he said. “How far can you get in six, seven, eight seconds if you bolted? If there was a pause in the shooting?”
Such findings, though, are disputed by gun rights advocates who argue that fighting mass killers requires ensuring that law-abiding citizens are adequately armed. Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, pointed to a shooting last summer at an Indiana mall. Police said a gunman opened fire, killing three people, before a 22-year-old bystander fired 10 rounds and killed the attacker.
Advocates for larger magazines say they are important for self-defense because gun owners can’t predict how many rounds they may need when facing a threat. In court filings, they argue that people can face grave danger if confronted by multiple attackers or while swapping out magazines.
But other analysts dispute the argument that larger ammunition magazines are necessary for self-defense.
Lucy Allen, a former White House economist, studied cases published by the National Rifle Association about people using guns for self-defense between 2011 and 2017, and found that in those 700 cases, on average, people fired a little more than two shots in self-defense. Many times, she said in a court declaration, these people never fired a shot. Someone fired more than 10 shots in just two cases, she said.
The NRA said the cases Allen cited were based on a collection of news stories and not meant to be exhaustive or representative. “To suggest that any law-abiding individual should diminish their ability to defend themselves is wrongheaded and dangerous,” Lars Dalseide, an NRA spokesman, said in a statement.
Family members and friends of people killed by gun violence stage a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol in July 2016, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) presses for magazine restrictions in February 2019, just before the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images)
While the recent stretch of research validating the restrictions is relatively new, the idea of trying to cap the size of magazines is not. In 1990, New Jersey passed the first modern restrictions. The federal assault weapons ban followed four years later, though it exempted devices manufactured before the law took effect.
Since the federal ban expired, states and local jurisdictions have passed numerous bans and restrictions, often in the wake of tragedy.
After the 2012 massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., lawmakers in that state passed a ban. Lawmakers in Connecticut similarly banned the devices after a gunman slaughtered students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that same year.
Lawmakers in Delaware, Rhode Island and Washington state approved restrictions last year, along with the city council in Columbus, Ohio. In January, lawmakers in Illinois — where a gunman using 30-round magazines killed seven people at an Independence Day parade last year — followed suit. That ban immediately took effect after the governor signed it.
All told, 14 states and D.C. have some sort of magazine restriction on the books, along with some individual cities and counties, though the Oregon measure approved by voters last year has been put on hold by a judge.
The bans differ from other gun laws in a key way. Gun manufacturers can easily skirt assault weapons bans by making cosmetic changes to the weapons, but restrictions on magazine capacity are straightforward, said Andrew R. Morral, a behavioral scientist at Rand Corp. who leads its Gun Policy in America initiative.
“You might disagree about what the threshold might be, but once you set a threshold for how many rounds it can hold, or how it attaches to the gun, or whatever the rule is, it’s very easy to define,” he said.
Advocates of the restrictions have found allies in some law enforcement veterans who responded to mass shootings.
Douglas Fuchs, a former police chief in Redding, Conn., was among the first responders at Sandy Hook Elementary, where his own children had once gone to school.
He struggled with what could be done to stop such carnage. He didn’t think the answer was banning any guns or taking them “out of law-abiding people’s hands.” But Fuchs took a lesson from what he heard from children who survived, who told their parents they fled while the shooter was “playing with his gun,” he said.
Fuchs concluded that the gunman was reloading, and that the children “saw that as an opportunity to run.” That proved just how valuable that pause could be, he said.
“Even a child knew,” he said. “They knew it was time to flee.”
A courtroom battle over magazine restrictions
Just as governors in Rhode Island and Delaware were signing magazine restrictions into law last summer, a Supreme Court ruling sent shock waves through groups supporting stricter gun laws and emboldened gun rights groups hoping to overturn the bans and other firearms restrictions.
In June, the court struck down a New York law dealing with gun licensing and declared that Americans had a right to carry handguns for self-defense outside their homes. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen, said that beyond adhering to the Second Amendment’s text, government officials have to prove that their gun regulations are “consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition.”
Legal observers say the ruling and its emphasis on “historical tradition” could dramatically reshape how American courts approach gun laws, including magazine restrictions.
The court’s ruling “articulates a test that few gun laws will easily survive,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who is an expert on the Second Amendment.
Gun rights advocates and organizations have mounted a number of challenges to the bans in court. In addition to the self-defense and constitutional arguments, some say that the term “high-capacity magazines” is itself a misnomer. Those devices holding more than 10 rounds are “common to the point of ubiquity among law-abiding gun owners,” a group of Republican attorneys general said in a court filing last year.
“The 10-round magazine is the exception, not the rule,” said Brown, of the National Association for Gun Rights. “It’s like saying the car with five gears is a high gear, high-capacity transmission. No, it’s not, it’s the standard capacity, the standard number of gears.”
Crates containing shipments of rifle magazines at Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Ky., and a magazine surrendered during a gun-buyback event in San Francisco. (Jon Cherry/Bloomberg News, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
For years, though, legal challenges to magazine bans generally failed. Brown’s group mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Colorado’s restrictions, which the state’s Supreme Court upheld in 2020.
But now gun rights advocates see the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling as momentous.
“Clarence Thomas handed us a four-ton wrecking ball to go after these ludicrous Second Amendment infringements,” Brown said. After the ruling, Brown’s group filed lawsuits taking aim at bans enacted by four states, including Colorado and Connecticut. Those cases are among at least 15 ongoing lawsuits challenging magazine restrictions across the country.
The Supreme Court’s decision also rippled out into cases that had previously survived court challenges, including bans in New Jersey and California that were sent back to lower courts to reconsider.
Polling suggests such challenges echo the wishes of gun owners. While 74 percent of American adults who don’t own guns supported banning magazines with more than 10 rounds in a Pew Research Center survey in April 2021, only 40 percent of gun owners supported that policy.
States facing legal challenges are battling back. Colorado has argued that its nearly decade-old restrictions are still allowed under the Supreme Court’s recent ruling. A federal judge in December allowed Rhode Island’s new restrictions to take effect, saying the measure did not violate the Constitution and calling it “common sense public safety legislation.” Opponents of the law plan to appeal.
For those who have seen firsthand the toll of mass killings, the political and legal debate over magazine sizes is deeply personal. Biehl, the former Dayton police chief, said he was “haunted” by how much bloodshed was unleashed by a single attacker firing so many bullets in so little time.
“One needs to question why anyone would need so many bullets in a magazine, that kind of capacity, for any legitimate reason,” Biehl said.