When his chilling rampage was over minutes later, Lanza had used the weapon to kill 20 students and six adults and, in doing so, rekindled the often intractable debate over limiting access to what many see as the deadliest of weapons.
Bushmaster's version of the AR-15, a civilian firearm modeled after the military M-16 rifle, has a grim history, with links to the D.C.-area sniper shootings. But under Connecticut's firearms laws, considered strong by national standards, the lethal weapon that Lanza employed was perfectly legal to own.
By law, it's not even an assault weapon.
"The term 'assault weapon,' as used by the media, is a media invention," said Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen. "These are semi-automatic firearms that have military cosmetic characteristics. They look like our military firearms, but they're not."
Connecticut has an assault-weapons ban, modeled after a federal law that was enacted in 1994 before expiring a decade later. But it takes more than a dark fiberglass body and a menacing shape to fall under the ban.
The Connecticut law restricts semi-automatic rifles — those capable of firing a bullet with each pull of the trigger — only if they include a detachable magazine as well as at least two of five specific features. One of those features — a pistol grip — is ubiquitous on military-style weapons. But to be banned, an AR-15-style rifle would also need to include a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a grenade launcher or a flash suppressor, a device typically screwed on to the end of the muzzle to limit the bright flash caused by gunpowder that ignites outside of the muzzle.
Aware of the restrictions in some states, weapons manufacturers have modified some models to stay within the laws. Bushmaster, for example, offers a "state-compliant" model with a telescoping stock that simply has been pinned in the fully open position, making it legal for sale.
Beyond the military look of the weapon, Lanza's rifle was equipped with a magazine capable of firing 30 rounds. In 2011, the Connecticut legislature considered a bill that would have banned high-capacity magazines with 10 or more rounds. But hundreds of gun enthusiasts showed up for a hearing on the bill, and thousands more wrote and called legislators. After the hearing, the bill died.
The .223-caliber ammunition used in Lanza's Bushmaster rifle is too small to legally be used for deer hunting in Connecticut, and Crook said that weapons like Lanza's are primarily used for target practice and competitions. He said that Bushmaster rifles can be found for less than $500 — at the low end of AR-15-style weapons.
Gun-rights advocates note that military-style weapons, and long guns in general, account for a small fraction of firearm homicides in the United States, the vast majority of which are committed with handguns. But they have also been the weapon of choice for a number of high-profile mass shootings, making them the focus of gun-control efforts.
In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, those efforts have increased, both nationally and in Connecticut. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a leading gun-control advocate, said she would introduce legislation reviving the federal ban on assault weapons, including high-capacity clips.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said Monday that he would reintroduce legislation to ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. "These high-capacity magazines, which were used in Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, and so many other tragedies, were designed for one purpose only — to shoot and kill quickly," Lautenberg said in a statement.
And Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a Second Amendment advocate who earned an "A" rating from the
"Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. It's never happened in America that I can recall," Manchin told
Activists are looking for action closer to home as well.
"As we mourn those lost we must also raise our voices and call on our political leaders to finally begin a serious, in-depth discussion on how to prevent the nonstop flow of gun violence that plagues our nation," the group Connecticut Against Gun Violence said in a statement. "Like so many other problems in our country, guns have become a polarizing topic. But if now is not the time to talk about our gun policies, when is?"
Crook said that he doesn't have the answer to avoiding another tragedy like the Newtown killings. But he said that the focus on high-capacity magazines is misplaced.
"People are concerned that a 30-round magazine versus a 10-round magazine is somehow significant," Crook said. "In order to change a magazine, you push a button, the magazine drops out of the bottom, you immediately slide a new one in. It takes about a second, second and a half, to do it. So there's no real benefit to banning these things."
Nevertheless, Crook is bracing for new efforts to put high-capacity magazines off-limits in Connecticut.
"The magazine ban might come back" when the legislature is in session next year, Crook said. But he's not overly concerned.