The AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is one of the most popular weapons in the United States, and one of the most denigrated.
It is an emblem of America’s political divisions, beloved by firearms enthusiasts for its versatility and prestige and the subject of bans by gun control advocates who blame it for the rise in mass shootings.
Every time there is a massacre involving an AR-15-style weapon, such as the May 6 shooting at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas, that killed eight people, the weapon draws a new deluge of media coverage and public discussion. The stakes and rhetoric are rising, and sales, according to the gun industry, remain brisk.
With the frequency of mass shootings increasing, so have calls to restrict sales of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, a design originally created for the military that is now copied by a variety of manufacturers under different names. washington state and Illinois it passed bans this year, joining seven other states and Washington, DC, that ban semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. President Joe Biden says wants to reinstate a national ban that expired in 2004.
“It’s a weapon of war that’s really only suitable for soldiers in a combat zone,” said Lindsay Nichols, policy director at the Giffords Law Center, which pushes for gun regulation. «Its ability to kill a lot of people quickly is the reason we want it banned.»
Compared to handguns, AR-15s do much more damage to human tissue due to the higher speed at which the bullets fire. Those shells are also more likely to break as they pass through the body, dealing more damage. That makes victims more likely to suffer more serious injuries, more blood loss, and more likely to die than with weapons that fire at lower velocities.
AR-15s are popular in part because they are relatively easy to use. They have comparatively little recoil and can be customized with accessories such as scopes, scopes, and pistol grips that improve comfort and accuracy.
Gun rights advocates say bans constitute a violation of their constitutional right, repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court, to own and bear arms and it won’t do much to curb gun violence. They note that data shows that semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 account for a minority of weapons used in killings. including mass shootingswith more frequently used pistols.
“It’s a wedge to ban as many guns as possible,” said Dave Kopel, a gun rights advocate and director of research at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver. “The people behind this are perfectly aware that this is not about banning some unusual types of weapons. It’s about weapons in general.»
The issue has divided the nation.
Public opinion polls show that Americans almost evenly divided on bans on weapons like the AR-15, with recent polls showing that support for the ban has slightly eroded.
“It’s very emotional and polarizing,” said Jacquelyn Clark, co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in Lakewood, Colorado.
Clark doesn’t just sell AR-15s; His business also offers classes on how to use the guns for match shooting and home defense, and how to customize them with accessories that will enhance their performance.
He also owns many hats and T-shirts with the image of an AR-15, a weapon that he acknowledges can look «evil and nasty.» So when she drops her children off at school, she is careful not to use them. “I don’t want someone yelling at me in the parking lot,” Clark said.
Clark is deeply concerned about the mass shootings and says she’s not sure of a solution. But banning the AR-15 is not the answer, she said.
“When used in mass murder situations, it’s easy to say that’s the cause, let’s go after that and it will stop. I just don’t think that’s the case,” Clark said. “It’s a very difficult and horrible problem that we have, and I don’t think we can go after just one thing. If we make it illegal, the bad guys will keep catching them and the good guys won’t, and they’ll have fewer options to defend themselves.»
The effects of mass shooting bans are difficult to determine. Researchers have found that the number of victims decreased when a national ban on certain types of semi-automatic weapons, including AR-15s, was in effect from 1994 to 2004. The researchers also say the number of mass shootings increased after the ban ended. But they acknowledge that it is difficult to prove cause and effect. Researchers at Rand, a nonprofit policy analysis organization, analyzed several studies of state and federal bans and found the evidence inconclusive.
Many officials have blamed untreated mental illness for the mass shootings and have called for more investment in mental health services as a solution. But the experts say Mental illness not a key factor in most mass shootings, and claiming a link unfairly stigmatizes people living with mental illness.
It’s impossible to know for sure how many people own AR-15s because the federal government is prohibited from maintaining a national registry of gun ownership. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, examined three decades of manufacturing, import and export data and estimated that in 2020 there were 24.4 million AR-15s in private circulation in the United States (the foundation calls the gun a «modern sporting rifle»). a 2021 Georgetown University Survey of US gun owners projected that 24.6 million have owned an AR-15 or similar rifle.
Gun owners have said in surveys that they use AR-15s for personal protection, recreational shooting, competitive shooting, and hunting. Sales often rise when gun owners perceive politicians will seek stricter gun regulations, which typically occurs after high-profile mass shootings, the researchers say. buy weapons too spiked during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gun buyers have become more diverse in recent years, with a particular growth in women and black customers. retailers say. That trend likely applies to the AR-15, though the data isn’t that specific, said Matt Manda, public affairs manager for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The gun industry’s marketing techniques have been scrutinized by Congress. A 2022 investigation by the Democratic-led US House Committee on Oversight and Reform, saying Gun companies “tout the military pedigree of assault rifles, make covert references to violent white supremacists like the Boogaloo Boys, and prey on young people’s insecurities by claiming their guns will put them ‘at the top of the food chain. of testosterone.
Representatives of two major gun manufacturers testified in a July 2022 committee hearing that the blame should be placed on the people who used the guns to kill people, not on the guns themselves. “I think these murders are local problems that need to be solved locally,” said Marty Daniel, then-CEO of Daniel Defense.
At that hearing, and many others around the country where new gun restrictions were debated, families of people killed in mass shootings joined advocates in pushing for new regulations on semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15.
Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter, Lexi Rubio, was killed in a 2022 attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has been one of them.
In May, he appeared at the Texas Capitol to pressure a state legislative committee to back a bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. The committee voted in favor, but the bill’s chances of becoming law are remote because it does not have the support of Gov. Greg Abbott.
“At the end of each day, I am just a mother who wants my daughter back,” Rubio said. «And a mom who doesn’t want another mom to know my pain.»