A man shoots AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on October 12, 2019 in Greeley, Pa. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images).
By Jay Andersen
The U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, shamefully went into recess less than 48 hours after a shooter in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two of their teachers. Lawmakers should not have left until they did something about this country’s gun problem. Not every kind of gun, but that with the most potential for damage: The AR-15.
Gun advocates will continue to gripe that the “liberals” want to take their guns away. No. No one is suggesting you can’t own a hunting rifle, shotgun or pistol for sport or self-protection. To my way of thinking, however, what the AR-15 is and does makes it a weapon of mass destruction.
In 1959, Colt Manufacturing Company bought the design, which was created for use by the American military. In 1963, the company began selling a civilian version with improvements for that market. After Colt’s patents expired in 1977, other manufacturers began to produce and sell their own semi-automatic AR-15 style rifles. Colt retained the trademark but subsequently took the rifle off the market in 2019. They brought it back a year later due to great consumer demand and, of course, competition.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation has estimated that approximately 5 million to 10 million AR-15-style rifles exist in the U.S, though some estimates are even higher. The AR-15 and its knock-offs are now manufactured by dozens of companies in a wide range of configurations and calibers. Colt and its competitors now refer to it as “a modern sporting rifle.”
Sporting rifle? Like for deer hunting? Duck hunting? Shooting clay pigeons?
The AR-15 is in no way meant for hunting or “sport.” It’s meant to kill people. Lots of people all at once.
Gun advocates will point to the Second Amendment rights. The amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
Makes sense: the colonists’ militia played a big role in the overthrow of British rule in America, and the Founding Fathers wanted to make damn sure it stayed that way.
That was reasonable in 1789. Most militia organizations today envisage themselves as legally legitimate organizations, despite the fact that all 50 states prohibit private paramilitary activity. There is no government-regulated militia.
Also, in 1789, the founding fathers had something much different in mind when they drafted that amendment. The typical firearms of the day were flintlock muskets and pistols. They could hold a single round at a time, and a skilled shooter could get off three or possibly four rounds in a minute of firing.
Flintlock muskets were the mainstay of European armies between 1660 and 1840. A musket was a muzzle-loading smoothbore long gun which, for military purposes, was loaded with a lead ball, or a mix of ball with several large buck shot. It had an effective range of about 75 to fewer than 100 yards. Basically it works when a sharp rock hits a metal gizmo that sits in a small pile of gunpowder, causes a spark and shoots out the lead ball at between 390 to 1,200 feet per second.
The AR-15, on the other hand, can fire 45 rounds per minute. Modified with a bump stock, it can fire 400 rounds per minute or more. That means that in 1789 if you wanted to settle a score at school, the workplace or at a backyard barbeque, you’d have to bring along about 130 other colonists to get the same job done that you could today with a single shooter and an AR-15.
Unlike the musket’s lead ball, the bullet from an AR-15 leaves the muzzle at 3,300 feet per second. That’s three times the speed of a modern handgun bullet. Which means it has plenty of energy to do damage inside a body. In fact the bullet is specifically designed not to pass straight through a body, but to “tumble” around, destroying flesh and organs as it works its way through at brutal speed. In terms of damage, think “hollowpoint.”
Admittedly, this piece of popular hardware is not the usual weapon of choice for people who want to shoot people, or themselves. A 2022 Pew Research study found that only 3 percent of U.S. gun deaths were caused by semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15. Their destructive potential, however, should concern us, especially as we relive the horrible ritual of mass shootings.
AR-15 style rifles have played a prominent role in many high-profile mass shootings in this country, and have come to be widely characterized as the weapon of choice for these crimes. AR-15s or similar rifles were the primary weapons used in around half of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting and the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
And now, Uvalde and Buffalo.
Today in the U.S., AR-15s are legal. Those weapons that are not legal include unregistered, stolen or illegally obtained firearms. Machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, explosives and bombs, switchblades and other illegal knives, including stilettos. Stilettos? Well, they don’t have mass shootings in China, but they do have mass knifings. Most recently they had one in Germany. Seven killed and seven injured in China, and three dead and seven wounded in Germany. Stilettos are banned in both countries.
It seems to me that when a modified AR-15 can do nearly as much damage as a machine gun — which can fire at a rate of 600-plus rounds per minute — its killing power is pretty much six of one, half dozen of another.
Textualists and originalists interpret the Constitution as narrowly as possible. They always say they want to keep the Constitution the way the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote it.
So let’s allow them their muskets.
In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned a California ban on semiautomatic rifles, claiming the ban infringed on the right to bear arms. As if mass shootings were being carried out by 131 guys with flintlocks, who could logically be called a “private paramilitary organization” and therefore, illegal.
Apropos of paramilitary organizations: Think back to the attempted sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and the stated intention to overturn a democratic election. We should be deeply worried that the next time the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and Q boys try a putsch, they’ll come with AR-15s.
Imagine how Jan. 6 would have turned out if they’d come carrying “modern sporting rifles,” which is the gun trade group’s appalling euphemism. The vast majority of the Jan. 6 attackers were carrying weapons of one sort or another; a handful have been charged with carrying firearms. Continuing investigations show many of the Jan. 6 participants possess various military-style weapons.
Gun control legislation without control of the deadly AR-15 would just be words on paper.
Jay Andersen has written for and edited two community newspapers, as well as served as news director/producer for a community public radio station. He wrote this piece for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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