Tacoma, Wash. The rifle allegedly fired by the Washington-area sniper is an easy weapon to use and experts said that when fitted with a telescopic scope could be effectively used after only a few hours of practice.
The semi-automatic Bushmaster XM-15, a slightly altered civilian version of the U.S. military's standard issue M-16, is also the type of weapon that is at the heart of the debate over gun control laws.
Advocates for stricter gun controls said they would use the recent sniper incident and the use of this type of weapon as a means to urge legislators to extend and stiffen statutes under the Brady Law that are scheduled to expire in September 2004.
"It (the Bushmaster model) is a classic assault rifle," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a not-for-profit organization in Washington that advocates for stricter gun control.
"It has no legitimate civilian use as we see it," she said.
Court records show that the rifle seized when the two alleged snipers were arrested Thursday was sold at Welchers Gun Shop on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma.
The manager of the cluttered shop refused to emerge from a back room when a reporter arrived to inquire about the sale of the rifle. Sales clerks said the store had been deluged with calls and the manager was refusing comment.
The manufacturers of the weapon, Bushmaster Firearms of Windham, Maine, stated that the rifle in question was shipped as part of an order sent to a Washington state distributor and that the company had no records of who acquired that specific rifle.
So far it is not clear how the weapon came into the possession of John Allen Muhammad, one of the two suspects arrested in suburban Maryland.
Under federal and Washington state gun laws Muhammad should not have been able to buy the rifle legally since he was under a state court restraining order requested by his former wife Mildred Muhammad.
She petitioned for the order after she claimed that her former husband had repeatedly visited her home and acted in a threatening manner. During one such visit, she stated, he forced his way into the house, physically pushing her aside.
The order was issued by the court in February 2000.
The Bushmaster XM-15 is not a sniper's rifle, but a modified assault rifle that can be sold to civilians because it is not capable of fully automatic fire. While the trigger of an M-16 can be held to produce continuous fire, the trigger of the XM-15 has to be pulled to fire each round.
The XM-15 has a 16-inch barrel, making it less accurate at longer distances than the M-16 which has a 20-inch barrel.
So far the National Rifle Association has sought to stay away from the sniper incidents.
"That's an issue we all need to stay on the sidelines (of) right now," said Wayne La Pierre, the NRA's executive vice president. "We need to back our police and let them go about their business."
But Rand said her organization would use the attention created by the sniper attacks to confront opponents and rally supporters as the debate over new gun legislation began in Congress.