Why the AR-15 has millions of fans: It's simple, light and menacing

DOVER -- Polls show at least six in 10 Americans want lawmakers to ban guns such as the AR-15 used to kill 17 people in six minutes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Owners of those semiautomatic rifles say that's because so many Americans don't understand these firearms.

"Most hunting rifles are more powerful than the AR-15," noted Joe Wicker, a home health business owner who chose an AR-15 to protect his Dover home because it is similar to the M4 carbine rifle he used serving two tours in Iraq. Familiarity makes it the safest choice for him.

"The AR-15 is really no more than the weapon of our day. It's just a very basic weapon," said Wicker, 39, likening it to a .22-caliber rifle because it is light, simple and typically uses low-caliber rounds.

To understand why a ban on the weapons of war that keep starring in mass-shooting tragedies is a nonstarter to most Republicans in Tallahassee and Washington, put aside the guns-don't-kill-people argument. Instead, talk to some of the millions of people who buy these firearms to keep their families safe, to shoot at gun ranges or to hunt wildlife such as coyotes or boars. Most are not militia members, John Rambo wanna-bes or even National Rifle Association zealots, but your neighbors, cousins and local merchants. Many became acquainted with the weapon out of curiosity following mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., Las Vegas and Aurora, Colo.

"The appeal is it's fun to go out to a gun range, a safe location, and shoot multiple rounds at a fun speed and fun pace. And it's relatively cheap as opposed to your (traditional) rifle that you'd use to go deer hunting," said Andrew Williams, a St. Petersburg manufacturing executive, who uses his AR-15s for target shooting and varmint hunting on his rural property in Alabama.

Menacing as they look with the high-capacity magazine, the AR-15 and its variants have become mainstream firearms, far more so than in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the federal assault weapons ban. It expired in 2004.

Visit a gun range today with a dozen people shooting and you're likely to see eight target shooting with an AR-15. They have minimal recoil, the ammo is relatively inexpensive and they are simple to modify with grips, sights and other accessories.

Legos for adults is how some owners describe them. America's rifle, says the NRA.

No one knows how many Americans own an AR-15 or similar rifles because Congress forbids the government from keeping a registry of gun sales or even electronic records. Industry groups estimate Americans own from 5 million to 15 million AR-15s or similar rifles.

"I honestly believe that one of the biggest issues with the AR-15 debate is that so few people actually understand firearms or policy," said Thomas Grigsby, a political consultant in Tallahassee. "You've got the uber-crazy 'muh guns' people over on one side, and the uber-crazy 'the AR-15 sprays 8,000 bullets per second' crowd on the other. Both sides are often completely void of fact or reason."

The basics: The AR-15 is a semiautomatic, meaning that it fires one round with each trigger pull, rather than a three-round burst as their military counterparts do. They cost as little as $700 or as much as $3,000.

The standard AR-15 comes with a 30-round magazine and typically uses .223-caliber rounds -- very loud rounds. That causes horrific, often fatal, wounds in humans, especially compared to most handguns. But many hunters view it as too small of a caliber to hunt big game humanely.

Linda Fox, a firearms instructor who owns a Pasco County wealth management company, doesn't have much use for semiautomatic rifles, but she does occasionally bring her AK-47 to the range to teach students that you can't necessarily judge a firearm by its appearance.

"I use it just for show, to show that you could put the stock of it up against your stomach and pull the trigger, and there's no recoil," unlike a pistol, said Fox, 49.

A strong advocate for gun rights, Fox thinks it makes sense to bar people under 21 from purchasing a semiautomatic weapon.

So does Williams, the St. Petersburg executive, who also supports banning bump stocks that effectively turn an AR into an automatic weapon that fires repeatedly as the trigger is pressed. He doesn't see how an outright ban would be effective, but can see how limiting clips to 20 rounds might also help keep more people safe.

Fox doubts that.

"The more bullets in the magazine, the quicker the gun is to jam," she said, recalling how the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooter in 2012 had an AR-15 with a 100-round magazine that jammed. "You could do more damage with a 5- or a 10-round clip than you could do with a 100-round, because that 100 is probably going to jam on you and that's when people have the opportunity to run."

Others say it takes less than two seconds to change a clip, so the magazine size hardly matters.

Sitting at his kitchen table in eastern Hillsborough County with his 18-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son playing nearby, Wicker said he can't see any justification for limiting people's magazine capacities. Think of a home invasion.

"When you're in a high-stress situation like that, there is a great chance that you may only place on target one out of four, one out of five," said Wicker, who is running for a Florida House seat. "Thirty rounds may not actually equal 30 rounds when you find yourself actually trying to defend yourself from an assailant."

In the aftermath of Parkland, the AR-15 is all over the news with calls for a ban. The publicity and threat ensure more people will buy them.

"Right now, the AR-15 is by far the most popular rifle in America. Simplicity of use and high reliability are also factors that play into this. With the popularity of its use in mass shootings, well, I guess that comes part and parcel with its popularity," Grigsby said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.