The Truth About the AR-15

Note (May 19, 2022): The facts in this blog are correct and useful, so I will keep it here. However, I no longer agree with the conclusion. I still believe in regulation of firearms, but I do not think a ban of AR-15 is appropriate or useful. In principle, the Second Amendment, if we agree that it represents a personal right to keep and bear arms, protects the right of AR-15s as much as any other firearm.

Ted Nugent, limited rock musician, NRA board member, and general blowhard, says the Parkland kids don’t know anything about guns, that it’s a lie that semi-automatic weapons were or are ever used in war, and that, if they succeed in restricting guns, the Parkland kids will be responsible for more death and mayhem.

Ted Nugent

Parkland was the site of a massacre in which a high school student, armed with an assault rifled, murdered and maimed several of his classmates. The United States continues to be out of step with the world when it comes to gun control.

Nugent, like most rightwing gun enthusiasts, misleads the public about guns. He professes expert knowledge of the matter. Of course, whatever knowledge he possesses about guns doesn’t bear on the question of whether certain types of weapons should be banned. These types have no legitimate purpose and controlling them saves lives. But since the right believes expertise makes argument against gun control persuasive, let me set the record straight.

In the mid-1950s, the United States Army asked ArmaLite to develop a version of the AR-10 to replace the M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, which had been used in World War II and the Korean War, as well as the M-14 (semi-/fully- automatic), which was introduced in the late 1950s (becoming standard issue by the early 1960s). The Army wanted a re-scaled and lighter version of the AR-10. The result was the ArmaLite Rifle 15, or AR-15.

ArmaLite sold the design to Colt and Colt manufactured the AR-15 and sold it to the Pentagon. The Air Force started using the AR-15 in 1962. In 1963, with the approval of President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Green Berets made the AR-15 its standard issue rifle. Army airborne units, as well as CIA, soon followed suit. In other words, the AR-15 is a military-style weapon.

That same year, the US Department of Defense rolled out the M-16, which is a modified AR-15. The chief difference between the AR-15 and the M-16 is that the M-16 is selectable to be fully automatic. However, other modifications make the M-16 less reliable and effective than the AR-15 design. For example, the M-16’s increases spin (the barrel twist) which makes the bullet travel a bit faster than the AR-15 but, more importantly, increases its stability when entering the body, a relevant and horrifying difference that I will discuss in a moment.

Ted Nugent says the AR-15 was not used in war. Nugent says that the caliber (.223/.222 Special) is such a feeble round that it is illegal to hunt deer with it. He is right that the gun is not a hunting rifle. Cleanly killing large animals requires higher caliber bullets with greater stability and stopping power and less damage to surrounding tissue. However, the AR-15 is good for killing and maiming large numbers of people. Indeed, it’s even better for this purpose than the M-16 set to semi-automatic, as well as popular handguns.

A bullet from an AR-15 travels approximately 3300 feet per second, about three times the velocity of a Glock (handgun). Its range is more than eight times greater than a Glock. You can easily squeeze off multiple rounds with greater accuracy. When a person is hit with a bullet from, say, a Glock (much larger caliber), the projectile often passes straight through. If no vital organ or artery is hit, then more often than not a person can be saved and recovery is typically complete. A bullet from an AR-15 tumbles, wrecking organs (trauma surgeons describe affected regions as “exploded”). There are physics behind behind wound ballistics. A smaller high-velocity projectile causes more damage than a larger one because lower mass means greater instability when it hits the body. Moreover, because of instability, if the round leaves the body, it’s a danger not only to those directly behind it, but to potentially everybody around it. Because the spin is less than the M-16, the AR-15 is more unstable when it hits the body.

In other words, the AR-15 is so good at killing and maiming—even better than the M-16—because that is what it’s designed to do. It is an offensive weapon designed with wound ballistics explicitly in mind.

Ted Nugent says that the Parkland kids don’t know anything about ballistics. I think they do. Does Nugent? Or is he lying? 

Ted Nugent firing an assault rifle

* * *

Why does the NRA want people to have AR-15s and AK-47s in the face of school shootings? Money. Nugent says that the NRA is families. It’s also a lobby for the security and firearms industries. The fact is that school and other mass shootings are an effective marketing tool. It’s free advertising.

Before the Cleveland Elementary School massacre in Stockton, California (January 17, 1989), most people didn’t know these weapons were available. The shooter in that case used an AK-47, sparking a sharp jump in sales for that weapon. But the awareness of the availability of the AK-47 alerted consumers to the availability of the AR-15. The sales of the AR-15 also experienced a sharp jump. With every mass shooting, AR-15 sales spike. 

There was a break in this pattern: the 1994 assault weapons ban, which banned some semi-automatic rifles (as well as certain high-capacity magazines). However, Congress did not renew the ban when expired in 2004. Leading expert on mass shootings, Grant Duwe, who defines the phenomenon as any incident in which four or more victims are killed with a gun within a 24-hour period at a public location in the absence of other criminal activity (drug deals, gang killing, and robberies), familicide, and collective violence and military conflict. He documents that the number of people shot and killed has increased since the expiration of the ban. Louis Klarevas (UM-Boston) examined incidents involving six or more killed and found the following: 1984-1994: 19 incidents; 1994-2004: 12; 2004-2014: 34. That’s a 183% increase in the decade after the ban expired. (So much for debunking Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.)

* * *

Most concepts and definitions are contestable. However, there is a strategy in avoiding hard truths by problematizing some thing that reasonable people all know to be solid into vapor. Without a basic consensus on what a thing is, no rational discussion is possible. Before Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, the law defined this type of weapon according to a broad consensus among experts: “In general, assault weapons are semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use.” 

The truth is that the AR-15 is essentially the domestic version of the M-16. These are semiautomatic firearms with large magazines of ammunition designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use. The difference between the AR-15 and the M-16 is that the latter is selectable between semi-automatic and fully-automatic. But this is not the difference that makes the former not an assault weapon. The point is what the weapon is designed to do—that is, what its purpose is. This is what the law spelled out. It continues to be a useful distinction and, given that the AR-15 and other assault-style weapons are the weapons of choice among mass shooters, because the weapons does what it was designed to do, that definition should govern the government’s response to the sale, distribution, and use of these weapons.

Four of the five deadliest mass public shootings in U.S. history have occurred in the last five years: the 2017 attack at a music festival in Las Vegas (58 dead); at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 (49); at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 (27); and at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (26). The weapon used in each case was an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle. It’s time to ban the sale and possession of these weapons.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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