Op-ed

Commentary: Here’s why the civilian AR-15 isn’t a ‘weapon of war’

Combatting the anti-gun crowd's nonsense

Photo by Bridget Bennett for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The New York Times says that after last week's horrific shooting attack on two mosques, New Zealand is having "its gun-debate moment." And of course, since New Zealand is having a gun-debate moment (despite already having stringent gun control laws), the U.S. anti-gun crowd has to jump in too, once again spreading disinformation about anti-gun activists' favorite boogeyman: the AR-15.

Every time a semi-automatic rifle with modern-looking aesthetics is used by a bad person to do evil, anti-gun politicians and pundits flood the zone with misinformation and misleading talking points. Sunday night, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough jumped into the fray with a misleading historic take on why the AR-15 modern sporting rifle (MSR) platform is supposedly a battlefield weapon that shouldn't be protected by the Supreme Court's Second Amendment cases.

And 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Robert O'Rourke said something similar over the weekend, calling the AR-15 a "weapon of war."

So let's clear up a few facts:

  • As I've explained before, in the late 1950s, small-arms whiz Eugene Stoner started designing prototypes for the United States military, with a heavy focus on making issued rifles lighter and theoretically allowing troops to carry more ammunition.
  • In 1956, Stoner and his team at Armalite started work on the AR-15 prototype, which followed the AR-10 prototype. AR stands for "Armalite Rifle," not "assault rifle" or "automatic rifle."
  • The company had a hard time selling the original design and licensed it to Colt in 1959.
  • In 1963, the original fully automatic, select-fire Armalite turned into to Colt's design for the newly commissioned M16. That same year, Colt released a semi-automatic version of the AR-15 modular platform to the law enforcement and civilian market.
  • When the patent expired in 1977, other manufacturers got in on the MSR game.
  • The typical MSR you'll find on the wall at your nearest gun store is semi-automatic and fires a .223 round. That means a smaller cartridge and one bullet fired per trigger pull, compared to what became the M16, which used a higher-pressure 5.56 cartridge.
  • Some MSRs fire both 5.56 rounds and .223 rounds. The main difference is that the 5.56 can have more powder behind the bullet, though not always. A .223 can be fired out of a 5.56-chambered rifle (although with diminished pressure) but not vice versa. But they're still semi-automatic either way.
  • This means that in both the ammunition it fires and the rate at which it fires, the AR-15 is more akin to the famous Ruger Mini14 ranch rifle than the M4 carbine, which is what's been putting rounds downrange for the Department of Defense since 1994. No AR-15 marketed for civilian use is an automatic rifle.
  • If you want to legally purchase an automatic firearm made before 1986, there are a ton of prohibitive bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through (plus, they're incredibly expensive because of the 1986 ban). If you want to buy one made after 1986, you either need to be a law enforcement officer with a reason to have it or a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL).
  • Despite the hype, rifles killed fewer people than knives, blunt objects, and fists in the U.S. in 2016, according to FBI stats.

Furthermore, people who like to point out that MSRs are popular with shooters need to realize that that's probably because MSRs are just popular in general. The design is light, low-recoil, and — because of its modular design — easily customizable. That means that no matter how your body is configured or what your specific needs are, you can typically find a way shoot comfortably. Those are features that all kinds of shooters, from target shooters to farmers and hunters, find useful.

But saying such features themselves somehow make it easier for evil people to shoot up innocents is like saying that a popular model of motor vehicle should be banned because the seat-warmers, adjustable steering column, and extra cup holders make it more popular among drunk drivers.

The fact that so many prominent anti-gun people think that the modern sporting rifle available to civilian purchasers today is a weapon that is used or even proposed for use in combat just shows how little they understand about guns. And if you're going to try to ban something or criminalize people's legally purchased property, you'd better at least have your facts straight about it.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said that the 5.56 cartridge is "bigger" than the .223 rather than "higher-pressure." It has been edited for clarity. The earlier version also said that at 5.56 cartridge "has more powder behind the bullet." It has been corrected to "can have more powder behind the bullet, though not always."

One last thing…
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