It’s time to stop thinking of the AR-15 like a regular gun. Treated as such, it’s unextraordinary. It’s lightweight and fires similarly lightweight ammunition. The kinetic energy it delivers per round is about half of a standard hunting rifle.
But no one looks at the AR-15 like a regular gun. Its aesthetics, the way it’s marketed, and how its high-velocity rounds become unstable upon impact, turning flesh to pulp, all conspire to make that fact perfectly clear. If you want to discuss the firearm honestly, you have to call it what it really is: a harbinger of cataclysm; the beloved plaything of mass killers; the domestic terrorist’s weapon of choice.
That’s where the military-style assault rifle debate belongs. Not being compared to shotguns, hunting rifles, or your grandpa’s old pistol, but in a separate category with the other preferred tools of anyone hoping to fatally injure great swaths of people — bombs, poison, and commandeered vehicles. When looked at through this lens, the case against the AR-15 (and similar rifles) is open and shut.
If the idea of categorizing the AR-15 and other military-style assault rifles as terrorist weapons sounds extreme, know that this assessment is absolutely supported by data. A version of the AR was with James Holmes in Aurora, Omar Mateen at Pulse Nightclub, and Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook. The San Bernadino shooters had them. So did the shooter in Sutherland Springs. There was one at the Pittsburgh Synagogue and one at Stoneman Douglas. And there were 22 AR-style weapons recovered from Stephen Paddock’s Las Vegas hotel room, plus another nine back at his house.
Those killings weren’t simply “gun deaths.” Even “mass shootings” is too nebulous a term. They were large-scale catastrophes and acts of domestic terrorism. And the AR-15 was at the center of them all. Its history of decimating the innocent is peerless, making the gun the most powerful over-the-counter killing machine in human history regardless of its projectile velocity. The message it transmits — to lonely men, boiling with rage — is so undeniable that even Second Amendment absolutists seem to recognize the force of its symbolism.
“It’s really just a perception thing,” master gun instructor Dean Hazen told USA Today about the AR-15, just after Stoneman Douglas. “There are rifles that are more powerful and more dangerous than that, but they’re not being used.”
Whenever the topic of an “assault rifle ban” comes up, the preferred tactic of the opposition is to argue semantics. It’s a very specific brand of semantic argument, too, where anyone challenging the right of civilians to buy a particular category of guns had better be a certified ballistic expert. If you dare discuss this type of weapon without technical precision — simply because you don’t like how bullets fired from its muzzle have chewed through the flesh of children at schools across the country — expect to hear the following:
Semi-automatic? Most handguns are semi-automatic. Besides, the AR-15 actually has less power than a standard hunting rifle. A real assault rifle is fully automatic, and those are already banned. Also, do you even know what a barrel shroud is? Or that the ‘AR’ in the name AR-15 doesn’t stand for ‘Assault Rifle’? It actually stands for Armalite.
These little snippets of trivia delivered in the tone of Napolean Dynamite insulting his llama are simply meant to distract. They’re speed bumps that impede serious conversation about a gun-type that’s preferred by mass shooters from sea to shining sea.
Which is not to suggest that there’s no need to strictly define the sorts of weapons in a theorized assault rifle ban. Parkland survivor Emma González, writing in Teen Vogue, readily called out the need for using concrete terms:
It would also benefit us to redefine what assault weapons are so that when we call for a ban against them, it’s clear that we aren’t trying to ban all guns. No one needs to use an assault weapon to protect themselves while walking home at night. No one should be allowed to use an AR-15 to strategically hunt people, which, in case anyone forgot, is what made us speak out in the first place.
González links to an article that goes into further specifics, with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s 2017 (now 2019) Assault Weapon Ban Bill as its baseline. This proves a little sticky, as Feinstein’s bill has itself been gunsplained by Second Amendment absolutists (the NRA obviously included). An article on Reason.com last week, with the title: “The Whimsical Illogic of ‘Assault Weapon’ Bans,” skewered the bill’s focus on guns with barrel shrouds, forward facing clips, and threaded barrels. Its subheading read: “The category is defined by politicians, who focus on looks rather than function.”
In truth, the AR-15 and military-style weapons like it are actually quite simple to categorize. Just use the famous line that Justice Potter Stewart offered in 1964 (Jacobellis v. Ohio), speaking on the definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” It’s not simply about barrel shrouds or forward facing grips or even high-capacity magazines. It’s about a weapon that’s modeled on the tremendous killing power of fully automatic military-grade rifles. Guns which are designed to decimate entire crowds of human beings without an ounce of hesitation.