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.
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.