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Notes on the AR-15: “America’s Rifle”, and America’s Mass Killer

Newtown. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Parkland. Pittsburgh. All of these mass shootings have something in common. Yet even now, far too many political leaders are afraid to even mention the one common denominator.

No, it’s not the media. It’s not video games. It’s not mental health. And it’s not “angry liberal mob”. No, it’s the AR-15 semiautomatic assault weapon. And despite its history as an incredibly lethal military weapon, it’s readily available at a number of civilian gun stores across the country.

A brief history of the AR-15

Just over a year ago, our entire State of Nevada was shocked and horrified by the 1 October Las Vegas Shooting that killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500 people. In the days following the shooting, we learned about the weapons and accessories Stephen Paddock used to inflict mass carnage. Not only did he utilize bump stocks to have his guns function as fully automatic weapons, but among the guns he used was the AR-15.

The AR-15 is a semiautomatic assault weapon that’s designed for “maximum wound effect”, delivering lethal, high-intensity bullets to its intended targets. Its origins can be traced back to 1930’s Canada, where John Garand designed the M-1 rifle for military use, and it eventually became the go-to rifle for soldiers fighting on the battlefields during World War II. Then as the Cold War dawned, Americans began working on their response to the Soviets’ innovative AK-47 assault weapon, and in 1960 U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay achieved such with the AR-15.

At the dawn of the Vietnam War, the AR-15 was only available to combat troops. Yet shortly thereafter, gun manufacturer Colt designed a semiautomatic version for the civilian market. The gun briefly became more difficult to attain when then President Bill Clinton signed the federal Assault Weapons Ban into law in 1994, but exploded in popularity when then President George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to expire in 2004.

Why has the AR-15 become the go-to weapon for aspiring mass murderers?
Photo by “docmonstereyes”, made available by Wikimedia, and licensed under Creative Commons

Since 2004, the AR-15 has become more than just a gun: It’s also become the ultimate high-end, high-tech weapon of choice for “makers” who want a highly capable weapon that’s also customizable. And yet, the AR-15 has gone very mainstream, at least among gun enthusiasts who have deemed it “America’s Rifle”.

That popularity hasn’t been without consequences. Because of its firepower, its compatibility with a number of accessories (from scopes to smartphones, and from higher-capacity magazines to bump stocks), its easy availability (it can even be assembled at home with the right parts), and its growing affordability, it’s become a weapon of choice for several recent mass shooting perpetrators.

Last year Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was able to legally amass his arsenal of weapons, including his AR-15’s and bump stocks, from several stores in four states, including a gun store in Mesquite. This year, suspected Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers also legally purchased his array of guns, including an AR-15. It’s become an eerily common theme for aspiring mass shooters to acquire AR-15’s, possibly acquire some accessories (such as, again, bump stocks), choose a target, and kill many people.

After Pittsburgh, why aren’t we talking more about the weapon(s) used in this massacre?
Photo by Andrew Davey

What makes this pattern even more disturbing is that it’s mostly very preventable. Assault weapons like the AR-15 and accessories like bump stocks and high-capacity magazines are far more difficult (if not completely legally forbidden) to obtain in nearly all other developed countries. While the U.S. alone accounts for nearly 15% of the world’s gun deaths, countries like Australia, Japan, and the U.K. have adopted far stricter rules on how to obtain a gun and which guns are allowed in the civilian market. Strangely enough (or is it), their violent gun death rates are less than one-tenth of ours.

So now in the wake of the deadliest attack on Jewish-Americans in the nation’s history, our country’s political leaders are debating… The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? News flash: Neither undoing the 14th Amendment nor any of Donald Trump’s other anti-immigrant policies would have stopped this mass shooting, especially since the lead suspect is a native U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, the AR-15 and the various accessories to maximize its lethal force remain legal throughout most of the nation, including here in Nevada. Time and again, these have been used as brutal killing machines by the coldest of cold-blooded killers. And yet, no one in the White House has declared that access to these killing machines is no constitutional birthright. Funny how that works… Except this week, it’s no laughing matter.

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