Anyone who has watched the sickening video clips of Sunday night’s Las Vegas mass shooting has heard the sound. It’s a staccato crackle of gunfire at a rhythm that almost resembles the cadence of a helicopter’s blades, far faster than a human being could repeatedly pull a trigger. That’s not the sound of the typical semi-automatic rifle owned by millions of Americans, but of an automatic one—or of a semi-automatic that’s been modified to be nearly as deadly.
The shooting at a country musical festival on the Las Vegas strip Sunday night has already become the most lethal in modern American history, with at least 58 people murdered and more than 500 injured by a gunman firing from a window of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. But gun experts who have watched—and heard—recordings of that tragedy note another distinction: It appears to be the first mass shooting in decades to have been carried out with a weapon capable of firing at automatic, or near-automatic, speeds approaching hundreds of rounds a minute.
What remains unknown: How the shooter achieved that rate of fire, given that gun laws make acquiring a fully automatic weapon extremely difficult in the United States, if not impossible. But there’s no shortage of potential answers. Exemptions do exist in the 30-year-old automatic weapons ban that make it possible for a civilian to attain one. And more likely, many technical hacks, some legal and some not, enable gun enthusiasts to turn their semi-automatic rifles into deadlier, rapid-fire weapons.
“In this country in general and especially in Nevada, it’s extremely easy for someone like this shooter to amass a giant arsenal of weapons that even without modifications are very dangerous and accurate over great distances,” says Mike McLively, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “And then there are all these modifications to amplify their destructive capability, both legal and illegal.”
John Sullivan, the lead engineer for gun access group Defense Distributed, puts it more simply: “Converting a semi-automatic to fully automatic is very, very easy,” he says. “At the end of the day, machine guns are easy to make.”
It’s still far from clear what sort of weapon the Las Vegas shooter used, and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment to WIRED on what sort of weapons were found in the shooter’s room at the Mandalay. But the killer would have had a number of ways to obtain the machine gun or its practical equivalent.
One of the easiest, and a leading theory among gun experts speculating about the shooter’s weapons, is a so-called “hellfire trigger,” or “gat crank”: A simple device bolted to an AR-15’s trigger well can allow anyone to fire their semi-automatic by turning a rotary crank, firing several shots with every rotation. That can allow a shooter to easily fire hundreds of rounds a minute, compared to the 80 or 100 shots or so the average shooter could manage with normal trigger squeezes. Though that rate of fire would no doubt overheat a normal AR-15, the shooter reportedly had 19 rifles in his hotel room, potentially making it possible to swap a new one in as needed.
Another easy add-on that transforms a semi-automatic rifle to a virtually automatic one is a so-called “slide fire,” or “bump” stock. That device adds a spring mechanism to the part of the rifle that presses into a shooter’s shoulder, so that the entire rifle bounces forward with every detonation of a round of ammunition. The shooter merely holds his or her trigger finger in place, and that bouncing pulls the trigger again and again at a rate that approximates machine gun fire, as shown in this slow motion video:
Although gat cranks and bump stocks turn AR-15s and AK-47s into functionally automatic rifles, they’re not clearly illegal. While automatic weapons have been banned in the US since 1986, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms only considers a gun to be automatic if a single pull of its trigger results in a multiple rounds being fired. The bump stock does in fact pull the rifle’s trigger with every shot. The gat crank doesn’t involve pulling a trigger at all, leaving it in a more legally murky realm that hasn’t stopped the devices from being widely sold.
But for anyone willing to simply break the law, converting a semi-automatic AR-15 to a full-fledged automatic weapon isn’t hard, says Defense Distributed’s Sullivan. An automatic rifle uses a tiny component in its trigger assembly called an “auto sear”. That key piece of metal catches the rifle’s hammer after every round’s explosion, when the expanding gases inside the gun’s chamber propel the bullet out the barrel, and push the bolt back to pick up another round from the gun’s magazine. When the bolt hits a spring in the gun’s stock and bounces forward again, it releases the hammer to hit the gun’s firing pin, without any interaction with the trigger, as shown in the video below:
With just a hand drill, a drill press, or a computer-controlled milling machine, anyone can drill a few holes and also widen the cavity inside an AR-15’s frame, Sullivan says. That way, it can accept an M16 auto-sear, available for sale online, giving a semi-automatic rifle a fully automatic firing mechanism. “It’s about four minutes of work, and it’s exceptionally easy to do,” says Sullivan. That resulting homemade automatic rifle is also highly illegal, with penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and years in prison, for simply possessing it.
Sullivan also points out that anyone can legally own an actual fully automatic rifle, too—and not just one that they create themselves. A few hundred thousand automatic weapons persist in the US that were created before the 1986 ban, and are owned by civilians. Buy the grandfathered-in rights to one of those weapons, as Sullivan himself has, and you can have your own fully legal machine gun. But that rarity has made the fully automatic weapons expensive: Sullivan paid $ 25,000 for his. “To me, it’s priceless,” he says. “It’s pretty much the coolest thing you can own.”
Even those grandfathered automatic weapons can’t be brought to many US states, including New York and California. But Nevada has no such law. And more importantly, says Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence attorney McLively, Nevada also has no limits on the number of semi-automatic weapons a person can own, and no limits on the size of ammunition magazine that can be used with them. States like California and New York limit magazines to ten rounds, but the Las Vegas shooter likely had magazines holding 50 or 100 rounds, based on the length of his uninterrupted shooting bursts. That lack of regulation of semi-automatic rifles makes instances in which they’re adapted to become fully automatic all the more deadly.
“We’re not saying no one can have a semi-automatic rifle. But why do you need 10 or 15? And why do you need high-capacity magazines?” McLively asks. “We can strike a balance between Second Amendment rights and public safety. But right now we’re way on the other side in allowing people to do anything they want. And we’re paying a price for it.”