The AR-15, Colt’s civilian version of the obsolete US Army M-16A-2 infantryman’s rifle, is the rifle that Nikolas Cruz used to gun down almost three dozen teachers and students at Douglas High School this week. It is also the same weapon used at a number of massacres over the years, including the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings. Its use in the commission of such horrific crimes has often brought tactical rifles as a class under Congressional scrutiny with a significant portion of the population clamoring for a complete ban of “assault rifles”. Nevertheless no such ban has ever been enacted, or at least not for long. Why?
Well for one reason civilian rifles dressed up in tactical cladding like the AR-15 are not “assault” rifles. An assault rifle is a fully automatic weapon that fires more than one round with the pull of the trigger. The M-16 (and its modern variants the M-4 and HK416), as an example, is configured to fire three round bursts or on full automatic (no limit up to the capacity of the magazine). This is, as one would imagine, a necessity on the battlefield where enemies are equipped typically with fully automatic AK-47 carbines. And it is also a capability that has no place amongst the civilian population. This is why federal laws prohibits assault rifles that fire on automatic from being in civilian hands, and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) Agency enforces those laws.
The other reason is that an AR-15 is nothing more than a jumped up .22 caliber rifle. The .22 caliber is the most popular small-game-hunting, plinking, and target shooting caliber in the country. Virtually every kid and adult who have handled a long firearm has used the .22 caliber rifle for either recreation, as an introduction to firearms, or for competition. What separates the AR-15 from other more venerable models offered by Remington or Ruger is the size of the cartridge and the amount of energy behind its .22 caliber round. The AR-15 (and M-16) cartridge is designed to overcome its lack of ballistic stopping power by applying a larger charge, and thus more muzzle velocity, to the round.
The Army likes the M-16 cartridge because it is much cheaper than the .30 caliber cartridge used by the AK-47 and the Army’s older M-1 Garand rifle. It is also lighter and smaller, allowing for more cartridges to be transported by vehicles and ported by soldiers. These advantages do not change the fact that it is an inferior cartridge. Colt Firearms has justified the M-16 cartridge’s lack of stopping power by promoting its ability to fire a round that tumbles once inside victims, causing significant tissue damage. This sort of inane and deceptive marketing has been picked up on by newspapers, who focus on this supposed feature every time there is a mass shooting by a gunman who uses the AR-15.
The reality is that the AR-15 and its variants are the weapons favored by mentally ill gunman to commit mass murder is because the AR-15 is the most popular civilian rifle in the country. It is a prestige rifle, impractical for almost any purpose other than competition shooting and recreational plinking. The AR-15 is no better in the woods for hunting animals than the M-16 is for neutralizing soldiers on the battlefield. Most hunters prefer the heavier caliber 30-06 rifle or even a rifle with a .45 or .50 caliber. The .22 caliber rifle is a small game weapon, and most hunters are not out in the woods to shoot squirrels. All rifles, regardless of caliber and firing mechanism, would be terrifying weapons in the hands of the criminal.
The proper focus of the public’s ire would be on how mentally ill citizens get their hands on weapons, whether or not it is appropriate for civilians to have 30 round magazines for their rifles, or whether or not combat video games that glamorize military-style weapons and high body counts make any sense. It should not be focused on whether a semi-automatic target rifle with a fancy plastic stock and barrel sheath be available in stores.