What Are Texas' AR-15 Gun Laws Like? The Sutherland Springs Shooting Has Ignited Criticism

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On Sunday, a shooter opened fire at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing more than two dozen people. Many reports indicate that the weapon used to carry out the attack was a Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Laws in Texas make acquiring these types of weapons fairly simple for state residents, and as is often the case after mass-shootings, many are questioning whether such loose restrictions are in the public's best interest.

In Texas, residents are allowed to purchase AR-15 rifles without a permit or waiting period. They also are allowed to openly carry these guns without a permit. The gun does not need to be registered.

AR-15 rifles, for background, are semi-automatic guns, which means that the gun does not need to be re-loaded between shots. Instead, ammo is released every time the trigger is pulled. Add-ons known as "bump stocks" can also be applied to the rifles, which significantly increase the number of rounds that can be fired in a given minute. (Essentially, bump stocks allow shooters to make use of the kick-back from shot to shot, allowing the trigger to be pulled at a much faster rate.) There also isn't a limit to the amount of ammo that rifles can be loaded with in Texas — if you can fit it into the gun, it's legal.

"In short, semiautomatic weapons are capable of inflicting egregious harm on a large number of people in a very short period, even when wielded by deranged users with no remarkable shooting skills," wrote Adam Gaffney, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in The Washington Post in October, after the fatal Las Vegas shooting.

To buy a gun in Texas, a person need only be a legal resident and at least 18 years old. From that point, rifles and handguns have slightly different regulations set in place. Rifles, for example, do not require a license to carry, whereas handguns do. And in order to be licensed to carry a handgun, a person must be at least 21 years old.

Rifles, as well as other "long guns" in Texas, may be transported in a vehicle while they are loaded and within reach of the driver. In other words, getting the type of gun used in the fatal Sutherland Springs attack is fairly easy in Texas, and so is transporting it.

According to the Giffords Law Center, Texas law does not regulate the sales of assault weapons, .50 caliber rifles, or large capacity ammunition magazines. Additionally, there is no limit on the number of guns that can be purchased at a given time. Put into perspective, any adult with a relatively clear criminal background who is of age and a resident can walk into a gun shop and purchase as many weapons and as much ammo as they can afford.

However, if a person is buying a gun from a private seller, however, background checks are not required; in gun control debates, this is often called a gun sale loophole. The Giffords Law Center reports that 40 percent of gun sales in the United States occur from unlicensed dealers who are not required to issue background checks on customers.

Depending on the type of Ruger AR-15, prices range from about $600 to $800, with a few models costing twice as much, depending on the type. A report about Sunday's shooting by The New York Times described the model as "a knockoff of the standard service rifle carried by the American military for roughly half a century." Simply, many gun-control advocates argue that there is no need for civilians to have access to military-inspired weapons because their main purpose, by design, is to kill other people, even if gun-rights activists argue that the guns can be used for hunting or target practice.

Gun control debates that pop up after mass killings are repetitive and often circular. Each side, whether for or against, feels that their right to feel safe is at stake, which makes the whole conversation very emotional. But the fact of the matter is that guns are easily accessible in the United States, and in Texas, shockingly so. While it may be true that semi-automatic guns themselves don't instigate mass killings, they're the weapon of choice for mass shooters.

The Second Amendment protects citizens' right to bear arms — that much is true — but like any other right, there are limits. (Think: hate speech is technically a limit to free speech.) Thoughtful gun-control legislation won't stop all mass murderers, but it can make a devastating event like Sunday's mass shooting much more difficult to plan and execute.