The December poll showed the lowest level of support for an assault weapons ban in at least 20 years of polling. It was conducted in the aftermath of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in which a couple used assault rifles to kill 14 people and wound 21 more.
The shooting in Orlando has reignited public debate over the proper role of military-style weapons in society. Seven out of the eight most recent mass shootings have been committed with an assault rifle, according to a database of these shootings maintained by Mother Jones magazine. The weapons can hold many rounds of ammunition — typically 30 — and skilled shooters can reload them in a matter of seconds. This makes it possible for a shooter to discharge many rounds of ammunition in a short period of time, killing or wounding dozens of people in a matter of minutes.
On top of this, assault rifles are typically more powerful and more accurate than other types of weapons. The AR-15, the most popular type of assault rifle available to civilians today, is accurate at up to 550 meters. Bullets fired from the gun leave the chamber at a speed of 3,260 feet per second, or a little over 2,000 miles per hour, according to one manufacturer.
By contrast, Glock 9mm pistols, one of the more popular handguns on the market, typically fire bullets with a muzzle velocity between 985 and 1,500 feet per second, or between 670 and 1,000 miles per hour. And handguns are typically far less accurate than assault rifles, with maximum accurate ranges between 50 and 100 meters depending on the shooter.
Gun control advocates question the wisdom of putting powerful assault rifles, like the ones used in Orlando and San Bernardino, in civilian hands. These “weapons of war” were designed specifically for killing people on battlefields. Gun manufacturers often use the weapons’ military heritage as a selling point, according to a 2011 report by the Violence Policy Center, a gun control research and advocacy group.
Gun rights groups point out that the rifles are rarely used in the commission of crimes. They further argue that bans on the weapons wouldn’t work because there are already millions of them in circulation.
However, hundreds of thousands more assault rifles are manufactured and sold each year. A ban could help prevent a would-be mass shooter from walking into a gun store and walking out the same day with a brand new assault rifle — which is what the Orlando shooter did just a few days before he committed the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.