The Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle authorities say Omar Mateen used in his shooting rampage is a relatively new weapon with subtle but crucial differences compared to the AR-15 rifles that have become the focal point in the gun control debate.
Dubbed a “weapon of war” by President Obama and a “classic assault rifle” by anti-gun groups, the MCX is a newcomer, introduced just last year by one of the country’s most popular manufacturers to try to correct some of the flaws customers felt in the AR-15, the country’s most popular rifle.
“It was originally built for military special operations as a fully automatic weapon, but it was to be used as a suppressed weapon and it was basically a big submachine gun,” said Bob Owens, editor of the website Bearing Arms.
Semiautomatic rifles are back in the crosshairs of anti-gun groups after the terrorist-inspired nightclub shooting in Orlando, which left more than 100 people dead or wounded.
Many Americans confuse semiautomatic rifles with automatic rifles or “machine guns,” which can spray bullets for as long as the trigger is pulled and there are rounds being fed. By contrast, a semiautomatic weapon is one that requires the trigger to be pulled each time a round is fired — though the next round is automatically loaded.
Gun control advocates question why someone outside of the military would need to own a semiautomatic rifle with a large-capacity magazine.
“The problem with the MCX and guns like it is they are weapons made for war — they have no place in our communities,” said Sarah Badawi, who handles legislative affairs for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The assault weapon used in the horrific shootings in Orlando is the same type of weapon that was used in Sandy Hook, in San Bernardino, in Aurora and in Roseburg, Oregon.”
But gun owners say the difference between what’s deemed an “assault rifle” and a hunting rifle is more cosmetic than functional: the addition of a pistol grip, which makes it easier to grasp the middle of the gun; or a folding stock; or the ability to suppress muzzle flashes.
Those can make the rifles easier to handle and perhaps more accurate, particularly in high-pressure situations, but they don’t affect the actual power of the rifle.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the AR-15 or the MCX can be used for hunting, target shooting or self-defense.
“Really what’s happening here is people are freaking out over how it looks,” he said. We [had] this big lecture in the ‘60s that we shouldn’t be skin-deep, but people look at the AR-15 skin-deep.”
In the case of the MCX, there’s little doubt the rifle can look slick and powerful. It’s heavily customizable and can be purchased with a silencer, as well as an upgrade kit that allows the user to convert an AR-style lower receiver to an MCX system.
But when it comes to firepower, among the most popular rounds of ammunition for the AR-15 are .223-caliber or 5.56mm, which are considered medium-powered.
It’s “not even close to being a high-powered rifle,” Mr. Van Cleave said. “There are weaker guns like a .22 long rifle or .22 magnum, but most of your hunting rifles are more powerful than an AR-15 — quite a bit more powerful.”
Mr. Owens said since the AR-15 has been on the market for some 60 years or so, its versatility makes it attractive for experienced shooters compared to other styles. But he said most casual observers of the gun debate misunderstand them.
“I would be willing to bet that at least 50 [percent] to 60 percent of the people who are calling these things assault weapons and assault rifles really think they’re machine guns, among the media,” he said. “Among the general public, it’s probably up around the 80 [percent]-to-90 percent range.”
Mateen carried both the MCX and a Glock-17 9 mm semiautomatic pistol with him when he stormed the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Initially police identified the MCX as an AR-15-style rifle, leading to confusion.
Police have not said how many rounds of ammunition he fired, nor how much he had with him, though Mr. Obama said the Glock “had a lot of clips in it” — presumably a reference to extra ammunition magazines Mateen was carrying.
In a report issued after the Orlando attack, the Violence Policy Center described the MCX as a “classic assault rifle” and said it incorporates “many of the characteristics that make this category of firearm so lethal and distinguish it from sporting rifles,” such as detachable magazines.
“The MCX is also designed with: a pistol grip; a folding, collapsible, or telescoping stock; and, a handguard,” the VPC report said. “These characteristics enhance the gun’s lethality by making it easier to shoot, reload, and maneuver in closed spaces such as a dark nightclub.”