Words Mean Things: Grown Up Talk about the AR-15 (Guest Post)

Despite the fact that there are (certainly) millions of AR-platform rifles in the hands of (probably) millions of American civilians, they only draw significant attention outside of gun culture occasionally. Following mass homicide events in which they are used, I am bound to hear: “AR-15s are weapons of war that have no business in civilian hands.”

Although I will have a chapter called “Living with AR-15s” in the book I am currently writing, rifles are not really in my wheelhouse. So, I have tended to ignore them on this blog, though on my Gun Curious blog back in 2019, I re-posted an essay by Jon Stokes on “Why I ‘Need’ An AR-15”.

Obviously many are not open to information and discussion about AR-platform rifles, believing they are only good for hunting helpless people. But some do reasonably wonder why civilians should own these rifles. As someone who knew nothing about guns for most of my life, I appreciate this authentic wonderment, so I jumped at the opportunity to bring forth another set of answers to the question that I found in my social media.

The following open letter of sorts includes some technical information about AR-platform rifles, some thoughts on their use and usefulness, and some points of political philosophy concerning government regulation.

By Jim*

I have seen a lot of discussion about the AR-15’s role in mass violence attacks in recent memory. Proponents of gun control see a strong connection between this particular weapon and mass shootings, and cite a list of shootings where an AR-15 (or something like an AR-15) was used – leading them to some very reasonable questions about why it is available for retail sale on the consumer market.

Assuming those questions are genuine, and that proponents of gun control are in this marketplace of ideas in good faith, I am going to try to walk them through some ideas to help raise the level of discourse about them.

The AR-15 is a common, lightweight, modular, relatively small rifle, with intuitive ergonomics. It is so common, and so modular, and has been around for so long, that it is more useful to think of it as a category or type of rifle as opposed to one particular make and model (variants are made by hundreds of companies, and there are thousands of unique models that could all be considered AR-15s). Most, but not all, shoot one particular bullet – the .223 Remington (5.56mm in metric). The projectile is small and lightweight relative to most rifle bullets, and moves a little faster than most rifle bullets. The bullet is used all over the world to hunt coyotes and prairie dogs, and also in most Western militaries. Normal magazines (the detachable box of bullets some people call clips) for the AR-15 hold 30 rounds at a time.

There are so many variants, that no one really knows how many AR-15s are in circulation among US civilians. Probably about 10 million (out of an estimated 300 million total guns estimated to be in circulation in the US). Variants of the AR-15 are also used by almost every law enforcement agency in the country. Two machine gun variants (that keep shooting more than one bullet as long as you keep the trigger pressed) are used by the US Military and many Western militaries (and law enforcement agencies): the M16** and the newer, smaller, more modular M4. The current US Military M4 is illegal in the civilian market both for its automatic fire capability and its short barrel.

People like the AR-15 because it is relatively lightweight, relatively small, easy to accessorize with things like lights and scopes, the controls are intuitive, and it has a cool factor from video games, movies, and military heritage. It is easy to shoot it relatively accurately. It is easy to hold and carry compared to other rifles. Its size and weight make it particularly attractive for people of smaller stature.

There is nothing particularly special about its “power” or lethality. It shoots rifle bullets. Rifle bullets will tend to move at high speed and damage a lot of tissue as they penetrate through a body. Rifle bullets, because of their weight x speed, will almost always do more damage than pistol bullets. Different models of AR-15 shoot different types of bullets.

There is nothing particularly special about its rate of fire. AR-15s don’t recoil particularly hard because their bullets are relatively light — but that is true for any rifle that shoots the .223 size bullet. The light recoil makes it relatively easy to continue shooting and aiming. A basic shooter can replace an empty magazine in about 5 seconds, and a proficient shooter can replace an empty magazine in a little over a second.

Is the AR-15 designed to kill people? Kind of. It IS used regularly for hunting – particularly for pest control (coyotes). Several states actually require a BIGGER bullet to hunt deer because the .223 bullet isn’t all that “powerful” compared to many rifle bullets. And it is used regularly for recreational shooting and a variety of competitive shooting sports. But most people get an AR-15 because they want a gun they could fight with.

That’s right, people get AR-15s because they are weapons. And there are lots of reasons (some good, some bad) someone might want a weapon. The fact that an AR-15 is a weapon is not, in itself, a reason to ban it. Part of your right to life is a long-recognized right to self defense, which includes the reasonable means and tools to do that in a world that has guns. That means being able to stop a 4-man home invasion robbery crew with guns and body armor, that means being able to deter rioters when LAPD couldn’t during the LA riots, or armed looters when Louisiana law enforcement couldn’t after Hurricane Katrina. Those aren’t crackpot hypotheticals – those all happened in living memory. Guns don’t guarantee my safety, but they give me a choice and a chance while I wait 8-11 minutes for law enforcement to arrive; they give me something better than putting my pink squishy body and prayers between my kids and a criminal. I don’t have to just deliver violence, I have to be able to deliver violence quickly and effectively enough to STOP someone. That might take quite a few bullets.

Why so many mass shootings with AR-15s? Well first off, I care about all mass killings, not just the subset of shootings. I care about the Nice, France truck attack (86 killed), and the GermanWings suicide attack (149 killed), the Berlin Christmas Market Truck Attack (12 killed, 56 injured), the Manchester Stadium bombing (22 killed, 1000+ injured), the Boston Marathon bombing (3 killed 250+ injured), the Oklahoma City bombing (168 killed), and the Boise stabbing (3yo killed, 8 injured including 5 kids), and the Kunming stabbing (27 killed), and I care about shootings that occur even in places with strict regulations like the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the Oslo Norway attack, and the Thalys train attack. Even with that context, it is still worth understanding why AR-15s come up so much in US mass shootings: they’re popular. And even if you banned them all today, they would still be popular… there are 10ish million in circulation. If someone wants more than a handgun, and less than a big, heavy rifle, they are probably going to grab an AR-15 variant.

So what if we had a ban? It turns out, we already tried that. From 1994-2004, we had an “Assault Weapons Ban” which specifically targeted the AR-15 by trying to call out AR-15ie features like “a grip” a “flash hider” and a “bayonet lug.” Why do I need a bayonet lug? I don’t know, but can you explain to me why you need to take it away?

So we have 10 years of data on how a national ban works. How do you think it worked? It is tough to prove causation, but I haven’t seen anyone even make a reasonably believable case it did anything at all.

Well there must be something we can do?! There is. First off, we need to fit rampage killings into our overall risk perception: as common as they seem to be, and as severe as they are – they are still quite rare. They are scary, they have agenticity which we are hardwired to prioritize in our risk sense. But they are quite rare. Homicide by rifle of any kind is QUITE rare at 364 out of 14,185 in 2019 according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report database. Hands/fists/feet have rifles beat by almost double. But to bring down that 364… we still have work to do.

This may sound diversionary, but I mean it: We need more and better taxpayer-funded mental health services in this country. Particularly inpatient and incarcerated. Not all rampage murderers fit neatly in a psych diagnostic framework, but quite a few do (likewise, incredibly few people with psych disorders are potential murderers, and I don’t want to stigmatize them!). We should be able to achieve meaningful early intervention with more of these troubled people. We need to learn about the attacks that have happened. Each attack gives us insights into warnings and indicators, murderer tactics, and responder lessons. We owe it to the victims to learn from these attacks. I urge everyone to start with the book Columbine by Dave Cullen. We need credible countermeasures. If we are relying on police intervention, I want competent and close-by cops. Not like the guys who hid out at the Parkland attack. We need to harden potential victims with something better than terrifying “active shooter drills” and meaningless campaigns to “run hide fight.”

People like me tend to resent the question “why do you even need an AR-15?!” or the quip, “no one needs an AR-15.” Because in a free country, the burden of proof should sit with the people trying to place a restriction. I think the people calling for more restrictions assume that case is both self-evident and air-tight. I don’t think it is. I think you would have a tough time proving why you need to ban the AR-15, and I think you would have a tough time even defining an AR-15 well enough to ban it, and I think you would have a tough time proving a ban once-enacted has done any good at all. Prove me wrong — I’m willing to listen.

*Jim is a concerned citizen and gun rights advocate with a background in military aviation, specializing in close air support and combat rescue. His opinions are his alone and do not represent his or any other agency. His other works can be found on www.TacticalTangents.com.

**Fun fact: Official military nomenclature leaves out the “-” so it is written M16 and not M-16. Now you know.

12 comments

  1. There are so many great and well-reasoned comments above which favor the AR-15 and disfavor confiscation that I just don’t have anything to add.

    Great work, fellows.

    Best,

    David

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  2. Jim makes a lot of good points that I agree with. However, the elephants in the room are roaming and bumping into things.

    The M-16 platform was specifically designed by Armalite as a replacement for the old M-14 US/NATO battle rifle which itself succeeded the WW II US M1 Garand. Why? Previous rifles were heavy, used a bigger round (when you are carrying a lot of ammo, that weighs a lot), and were usually overkill for the battlefield. IIRC without citing sources, the 223/5.56 round did the job at reasonable battle distances. The 5.56 is loaded to higher pressures than the 223. The wound performance of the 5.56 is pretty good, as Jim mentions.

    As far as hunting? Its the round more than the platform. I can hunt ground hogs with an AR-556 or my stepdad’s Savage 340 I used as a young man. For long range, the Savage in 225 Winchester loaded “hot” and in a longer barrel was the flat shooting terror of ground hogs east of Buffalo. If I wanted to hunt “varmints” with the AR platform I’d opt for a new upper with a longer barrel to get a few more fps and less bullet drop out of the rig. I can hunt deer with an M1 loaded up with pointed soft points or my old Model 70. I suppose if I am hunting and am attacked by a Banzai suicide charge of wild pigs I would prefer the AR platform. But really.

    The bottom line is these “modern military style” rifles are popular for all the reasons Jim mentions and I fully concur. But, on the flip side, they fire a lot of rounds in a short period without loading an internal magazine or fumbling with a bolt, and are excellent for mass shootings for the same reason they are ideal for keeping an enemy combatant’s head down. Of course they are ideal for home defense as long as there is more than a layer of drywall between you and the neighbor, or in my case, almost flawlessly pinging little steel targets at 200 yards with a quick release 3×9 scope instead of the red dot/green dot 1x optical sight. It takes a lot more planning and precision to shoot a lot of people with a bolt action. The only person I know who used a bolt action rifle for a mass shooting in the US was Charles Whitman, half a century ago and he did it from the top of the UT Austin tower where no one could get to him for a long time. Plus, he was a former USMC sharpshooter IIRC. Eventually, citizens showed up with rifles and pinned him down enough for the police to get up there and “end the threat” to use the legal terminology.

    It is complicated. Americans have ALWAYS been able to own and shoot military rifles. The only exception is full auto ones since 1934. In that sense, ownership of ARs is a continuation of “in common use” and traditional rights and privilege. After all, Miller said that to be protected by the 2A, a gun has to have relevance to the Militia. What is more relevant than the gun the troops carry? Americans have the RKBA. But there is a price when the bar for ownership for the functional equivalent of a modern battle rifle is a perfect score on the 4473 quiz. And these mass shootings outweigh their frequency in their political and emotional damage.

    Is there middle ground between gun rights folks and gun grabbers? I have my doubts.

    Thanks, David, for posting that essay. I look forward to other responses.

    Khal Spencer

    Lifetime gun nut
    AR owner and enthusiast
    Board of Directors, a large gun club in New Mexico, speaking for myself
    Scientist, large federal facility in New Mexico, speaking for myself

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  3. About time someone brought this up. Because this topic is very personal to many, simply because many normal people own AR-15s, but there seems to be a severe misunderstanding on what we are witnessing, especially when people do not understand why AR-15s appear in many of these tragedies. I’m not saying that everything that Jim says what AR-15s are is false, he’s not wrong. But simply stating the reason that they appear in many mass shootings because they’re popular is absurd. Because then people would believe that mass shooters start as normal gun owners, and start targeting semi-automatics as well. Even if there is nothing unusually lethal about it, let alone being a semi-automatic rifle, it still doesn’t explain why a significant minority abuses it anyway. It also doesn’t explain why believing that AR-15s are only for taking innocent lives require the social enforcement of double standards. And it definitely doesn’t explain why people who tend to believe this nonsense tend to be, or are made, sufficiently intolerant. The belief that AR-15s (or other certain weapons) are only for killing people is a false reality. There is an article called “Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism” that I think every gun owner should read. Although it particularly addresses the ‘Woke’ mob, identical behaviors can be paralled in the gun debate as well. A false reality presents a feasible but deliberately distorted understanding of reality. They do not attempt to describe reality as it is but rather as it “should be”. They have two purposes: to mold the world to appease small numbers of people who are unable to cope with reality, and they are designed to replace other ideas and truths with power, which are spread by functionally psychopathic individuals. What makes a false reality exceptionally compelling is that their target is normal people, because most normal people do not accept the pseudo-reality. However, because pseudo-realities require linguistic manipulation and coercion, people who accept pseudo-realities are no longer normal. The more they are tolerant to it, the more functionally psychopathic they become. If you continue to see your rewired friend as normal, then you become a useful idiot. That’s why you see people like journalists, Hollywood celebrities, gun-control advocates, and even certain gun owners tend to use these tragedies to BULLY other gun owners to spread this wack, snobbish garbage by using hasty generalizations, ad hominems and “Motte and bailey” fallacies. And what does this particular pseudo reality have to do with AR-15s? Pseudo realities can result in many sociopolitical calamities; war, genocide, civilizational collapse and even mass shootings. If people continue to believe in this falsehood, the world would eventually believe it, which is enough to convince one person, who wouldn’t even care if all normal gun owners were disarmed or even condemned to oblivion, to buy one and abuse it. Consider the fact that whenever a mass shooting happens, you can’t read an article on The Altantic, Vox, or The New York Times without seeing pictures of ARs and AKs coupled with linguistic, nihilistic propaganda. Perhaps the best way to stop people from abusing AR-15s is to either reject and/or refute the pseudo-reality. If AR-15s were seen as weapons owned by normal people instead of as “assault weapons”, which is a jargon term, then maybe it wouldn’t convince a lunatic to lay a finger on it.

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  4. As far as the ten year AW ban? My read is it was irrelevant. Several reasons. One, all the weapons already sold were grandfathered so your rifle was safely protected from being grabbed. Two, many of the companies started selling “assault weapon ban legal” ARs that simply removed some of the prohibited naughty bits. Three, the huge spike in production happened after the ban sunsetted.

    So although there are a few folks who point to a relative dearth of mass shootings in the nineties, this could not have been the result of fewer ARs on the street. So what was the “something else”? State laws? Lack of interest? Or just statistical fluctuation of a rare even?

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  5. Here’s what I don’t understand. People say, apparently in good faith, that “these guns were designed to kill!” They make statements like this in the apparent conviction that they’ve actually made an argument. They act like they’ve offered “a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.” Yet they’ve done nothing of the sort.

    Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there is literally no other reason my AR15 rifle exists except to kill people. Ignore the fact that this is a ludicrous statement, but let’s pretend that it’s a true one.

    So what?

    The people who advance the “They are just for killing people” reason are assuming that “killing people” is automatically wrong. It certainly CAN be wrong. In most cases it IS wrong. But it is not necessarily wrong in any given circumstance.

    This is one of the major reasons that Gun Control is a lie. People who want to ban or restrict guns are skipping completely over their actual argument. Instead of arguing over the right of individuals unconnected with government service to use deadly force against their fellow citizens. Instead of being honest and saying forthrightly that they believe that there are no circumstances where it could ever be legal and moral to use deadly force on another human being, they get into silly arguments about tools. We see this every day with the irrelevant and frankly stupid statement “you can’t hunt with that,” as if hunting animals is the only appropriate use of a firearm.

    We need to stop asking people how they feel about any particular firearm and ask them to explain how they feel about ordinary citizens killing others, and in what circumstances that would be a moral act. One cannot have an actual argument with someone who doesn’t agree with you on first principles. It makes no sense to argue about what kind of rifle I’m permitted to shoot other people with if the person I’m arguing with doesn’t accept that it is legal and moral for me to shoot other people.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I find the argument that “these guns were designed for one purpose only, to kill as many people as possible as fast as you can!” less than persuasive and somewhat begs the question rather than researches it. With ten to twenty million rifles out there, we should see millions of AR/AK related homicides. Instead, documented rifle homicides from all rifles are a few hundred. Obviously, most of us have either:
      1. Not gotten the message yet that the only reason to have these guns is to kill people.
      2. We are just lazy and have not gotten around to it.

      Self defense is a human right. I don’t have a problem with some forms of screening, TBD, by a fair and impartial Supreme Intellect. But I’ve yet to see a proposal that doesn’t give me serious indigestion.

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  6. Why are AR pattern rifles used so often?

    Because the same dynamic by which the media makes mass shooters into celebrities, thus inspiring more mass shooters, has also bestowed a similar infamy on the AR15.

    After a mass shooting with an AR, the gun becomes not only the focus of discussion in the media, but the focus of hyperventilating discourse in Congress.

    The gun has become so famous as a tool used by mass shooters, it’s no wonder the new shooter gravitates towards it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting quote from a few years back, below. The normalization of violence. Sort of a badge of arrival to go out in a blaze of infamy with the stylish black rifle. #MeToo

      “The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”

      –Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Catch On, by Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker, 19 Oct 2015.

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  7. I appreciate this article and the authors attempt to take the hysteria out of the debate around AR “type” rifles and gun control in general. To clarify I am a veteran and I believe in the 2A, I own a firearm and have contemplated purchasing a AR style rifle myself. Having said that, the fact remains that the M16 which the AR is based on/modeled after is a weapon of war, it is , in fact designed to produce a high volume of accurate and lethal firepower. To argue that it is not seems disingenuous to me. And yes I realize that M16/M4 rifles have the ability to fire in full auto (or three round burst) but anyone who’s has spent time in the military knows that unless you’re truly good and f***ed one generally does not employ that ode of fire nor does one need to to put out a lot of rounds accurately. IMHO I think the bigger issue is not so much the rifle(s) but the magazine capacity that makes these weapons so deadly. This ended up being much longer than I intended 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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