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Shooter at Texas Church Used AR-15-style Rifle

A law enforcement helicopter flies over crosses placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 6, 2017.

The shooter in a Texas church that killed 26 people Sunday used a Ruger AR-556, which is a variant of the AR-15 rifle — the most popular rifle in America.

Various versions of the AR-15 rifle have been used in some of America's most deadly mass shootings, including the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 that killed 49 people and the Las Vegas shooting last month that killed 58 people.

The AR-15 is trademarked by the Colt company, though other manufacturers market similar rifles under different brand names, like the AR-556 used by the church shooter. The 556 in the rifle's name is a reference to the 5.56 millimeter ammunition it uses.

AR-15s are sometimes called assault rifles, though this is incorrect because assault weapons are fully automatic machine guns and have been heavily regulated in the U.S. for more than 80 years.

The AR-15 was first developed in the 1950s and was eventually modified and adopted by the military and renamed the M16. The military version is fully automatic, meaning it will keep firing as long as the trigger is pressed. The AR-16 available for civilians is "semi-automatic," meaning the trigger must be pulled each time the weapon fires a round.

The AR-15 can be modified to accommodate a variety of calibers, but is no more powerful than hunting rifles using the same caliber bullets. Oftentimes, AR-15s — like the 5.56 rifle used by the Texas shooter — are chambered with less powerful rounds than standard hunting rifles, such as the 30-06 or 12-gauge shotgun slugs.

The guns are popular in America due to their reliability and their relatively low price tag. The Ruger AR-556, for example, has a retail price under $800. The guns can be outfitted with customized stocks, barrels, scopes and other accessories.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) says there are between five and 10 million AR-15 rifles legally owned in the U.S., which represents a small fraction of the roughly 300 million total firearms owned by Americans.

FBI data show that in the five years ending in 2014, the most recent data available, rifles, including the AR-15, were used in 2.4 percent of U.S. homicides; handguns, by comparison, were used in at least 48 percent.

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