Boulder shooting suspect’s gun looked like a rifle. But it’s a pistol. Experts worry it’s helping people skirt gun laws

Six days before opening fire in a Colorado grocery store and killing 10 people, a 21-year-old suspect in the massacre bought a Ruger AR-556 pistol – a weapon with a controversial history in the national debate over gun regulation. 

The Ruger looks like a rifle, operates like one, and even takes the same ammunition as the infamous AR-15 that has been used in many U.S. mass killings. But the Ruger is not a rifle – at least, not under current gun laws. 

Billed as Ruger’s alternative to the AR-15 rifle, the pistol is smaller and more maneuverable than a rifle. It also isn’t bound by the strict regulations that a rifle of its size would, an issue that’s cast light on the nation’s gun laws and led to calls for change. 

“If you cut off the back end of the AR-15 and you shorten up the muzzle – the front part where the bullet comes out – it’s the same thing,” said Christopher Herrmann, a former New York City police officer and an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You’ve taken this deadly AR-15 weapon and now you’ve made it concealable.”

Like the AR-15, the gun is semiautomatic. It’s a portable “weapon of mass destruction,” Herrmann said — “all the comforts of a limousine but in a smaller car.”

For the Colorado shooting suspect, the Ruger AR-556 pistol had another benefit: It made purchasing the weapon quick and easy. A rifle of its same size would have been subject to multiple layers of added scrutiny, including a background check that would have required several forms of ID and even fingerprinting. The suspect would have had to pay additional taxes and potentially wait months before the gun was registered. 

But the Colorado suspect didn’t have to wade through the added red tape for the Ruger, since it is a pistol. 

Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold confirmed Friday the suspect used the Ruger AR-556 pistol in the attack, which she said he purchased at a gun store in Arvada, Colo. The weapon appeared to fool police who responded to the shooting as they referred to the gun repeatedly as a rifle or AR-15 styled rifle in a charging affidavit. 

A look at the Ruger AR-556 pistol

A new Ruger AR-556 pistol can range in price from about $900 to $950. New AR-15 rifles range in price from around $500 to several thousand dollars. 

Typically, the Ruger AR-556 pistols have a capacity of 30 rounds, similar to that of rifles. This offers the potential to carry more bullets than most glocks or smaller pistols that typically can carry about 10 to 15 bullets, though Colorado law doesn’t allow magazines with more than 15 rounds. 

The pistols don’t use 9mm rounds, typically found in most smaller pistols, and instead are outfitted to use the same high-velocity ammunition used in AR-15 styled rifles, which were originally designed for military use. 

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