The AR-15 is America’s best-selling rifle, helping gun sales more than double over the past 20 years. An estimated 8 million AR-style rifles are in circulation, with more being sold every day.
The weapon is a modification of the M-16 rifle issued to U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Firing a small caliber bullet propelled by much gunpowder, its round is designed to maximize damage to tissue and bone.
Like the M-16, AR-style rifle magazines hold up to 30 rounds. But the AR-15 fires semi-automatically, so, instead of “spraying” bullets, it reloads to fire as quickly as one can squeeze the trigger. AR-style rifles rarely jam.
The shooter who killed 17 students at a Parkland, Florida high school and injured 14 others can be heard on a cellphone video firing rounds at will amid screams by students.
The United States is the only country in the world where high-powered, semi-automatic rifles can be so easily purchased. Once marketed as assault weapons to advance sales, they now have different names within the gun community.
The gun industry labels them tactical rifles. AR enthusiasts on forums like AR15.com call them “EBRs” or “Enhanced Battle Rifles.” One “Gen-X” National Rifle Association columnist calls them “modern sporting weapons.”
From 1994 to 2004, the federal assault weapons ban outlawed sales of some new semi-automatic weapons, limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds and banned add-on features like a flash suppressor. Since it expired, the gun industry and the NRA have together incorporated AR-style rifles into High Power Rifle Competitions, making them a new sporting weapon while further expanding their circulation.
Over just the past six years, shooters have used AR-style rifles to injure or kill dozens of people in each incident in Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Newtown and Aurora. Whether motivated by mental illness, terrorism or revenge, the shooters rarely broke any laws in obtaining their guns.
What’s behind the AR-15’s allure
NRA leaders tend to go dark after each mass shooting, while sympathetic politicians and pundits claim no one should politicize the (latest) tragedy. Yet like a never-ending horror movie, America’s toll of gun violence continues to rise including far more, but less publicized gun violence among urban minority youth.
It was a former Fox News host who recently said out loud what many others think. Mass shootings, wrote Bill O’Reilly, are “the price of freedom.”
Americans have not seriously discussed gun reform in decades. The loss of 20 young children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown gave rise to a debate in Congress that faded within four months. After America’s largest shooting, in Las Vegas, Congress debated not restricting guns but only possibly an after-market accessory-bump stocks. Today Republican leaders are offering prayers instead of action. Or talking about anything — from better reporting of military domestic abusers, to improved monitoring of disturbed children along with potential terrorists — but gun reform.
Democratic leaders are again talking about attempting to pass a new assault weapons ban. But like other modest measures passed by Congress in past years, as well as measures adopted in a number of liberal states, the ban focuses more on the features of weapons than on who can access them.
Today in most states, one has to be a convicted felon or have been deemed mentally unfit by a court authority to be ineligible to buy a firearm. Even individuals charged with domestic abuse may still keep their guns in most states.
Real reform would mean asking, Who needs tactical weapons?
This is heresy to the NRA. But without addressing gun access, any attempt to curb gun violence will fail.
Take New Jersey. Before buying any gun, an individual must apply for a firearms ID card requiring a background check and fingerprints. One must apply for a separate handgun permit involving repeated checks to buy a single revolver or pistol.
Fla. school gunman Nikolas Cruz faces premeditated murder charges
That may sound like a lot of bureaucracy, but state and federal courts have so far upheld that such regulations are constitutional.
Individuals buy AR-style rifles for many reasons, including not to be outgunned by any potential (or imaginary) attackers. They include criminals and home burglars, and marauding rioters like after the 1992 acquittal of L.A. police officers for beating Rodney King, and government forces seeking — in the minds of many gun activists — to impose some kind of dictatorial state.
During the Obama administration there was talk of overthrowing the government. Under President Trump the talk is of defending his continuance in power.
America could curb gun violence by legally regulating access to guns including tactical rifles. But doing so would require changing the conversation.
Smyth (www.franksmyth.com) is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for Mother Jones, The Progressive and MSNBC.