NB: This post can be read as a response to Merkin Muffley’s post, “Good Sense and America’s Guns”.
The “AR” in “AR-15” does not stand for “assault rifle” — but you could be forgiven for thinking it did.
Developed by ArmaLite in 1959, the ArmaLite Rifle 15 was conceived as an infantry weapon for the U.S. military. ArmaLite later sold the design to Colt amidst financial troubles, and after some tinkering, Colt began selling an automatic-fire version of the gun to the government, calling it the M16.
Colt also maintained its trademark on the AR-15, and in 1963, the company began selling the semiautomatic version to the public. Today, around 20 other manufacturers sell versions of the AR-15 under different names, but the entire AR-15 family still displays its military heritage. The most basic iteration of the gun fires 5.56x45mm NATO standard ammunition at a muzzle velocity of 3,200 feet per second, the same speed as its fully automatic cousin and between two and three times the muzzle velocity of a handgun. A standard magazine contains 30 rounds of ammunition — although extended magazines can hold up to 100 rounds — which provides a rate of fire of about 45 rounds per minute, according to the Boston Globe: 3 bullets every 4 seconds. This accounts for reloading and aiming; with an extended magazine, someone who didn’t care much for accuracy could far exceed that rate of fire. Fired with care, though, the AR-15 is accurate at ranges up to 300 yards.
As Jay Wachtel, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, recently told the Los Angeles times: “It stays on target, it’s very accurate, and it’s devastatingly lethal… You don’t have to have an accurate hit in order to kill someone.”
Which makes sense, because the AR-15 was designed to kill people. And since Congress allowed the assault ban to expire in 2004, AR-15s and other similar rifles have become the weapons of choice for terrorists and mass murderers seeking to do just that. James Holmes was using a Smith & Wesson M&P, that company’s AR-15 copy, when he killed 12 people and injured 70 more at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster XM-15 to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school that December. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik used a Smith & Wesson M&P to kill 14 people at an office party in San Bernadino last December. And on June 12, Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX to kill 49 and wound 53 at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
A few marginal conservative outlets were quick to lash out after some mainstream news sources incorrectly claimed that Mateen had used an AR-15. That mistake likely resulted from Orlando police chief John Mina’s initial descrioption of Mateen’s weapon as an “AR-15-type assault rifle,” but some conservative pundits saw it as another episode in the liberal media’s campaign to demonize America’s most popular modern sporting rifle.
In fact, the AR-15 pales in comparison to the MCX. Like the AR-15, the MCX was developed for the U.S. military — specifically, the special forces. And like an AR-15, the MCX that Mateen used was a semiautomatic version of an automatic rifle used by soldiers. Billed by its makers as an “innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core,” the MCX was designed to be even more lethal than the AR-15 or the M16. So it actually fits the liberal media narrative better than an AR-15 would have: Mateen was another mass shooter armed with a military-grade assault rifle.
The AR-15 is not a modern sporting rifle. Neither is the Sig Sauer MCX. Listen as Mateen fires 24 shots in nine seconds if you need any more clarification: these are weapons. They are designed to end people’s lives — as many as possible, as quickly as possible. And since 2004, we have done nothing to prevent weapons like these from being used for their intended purpose. We haven’t even tried.
This is the root of liberal outrage over guns. People die, and we twiddle our thumbs. Our children, our friends, our fellow citizens are mowed down by psychopaths wielding military-grade assault rifles, and we do nothing. This is not a policy failure — it is a moral failure on a national scale. What does our inaction say about us as a country?
We don’t know what effect policies like expanded background checks, a national registry of gun owners, or the creation of a no-buy list would have on gun violence in this country. (Part of the reason we don’t know is that, since 1996, Congress has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence or using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” When Congress renewed the research ban in 2015, Former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) justified the policy with the quip, “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease.” By this logic, the CDC shouldn’t be researching cigarettes, or drug use, or alcohol — three of the country’s largest public-health challenges.) We don’t know, although common sense, social science, and comparative evidence suggest that fewer guns means less violence. So when conservatives wag their fingers and cluck their tongues, scolding their overly emotional liberal friends for proposing solutions that just won’t work — “Mateen would have gotten a gun anyway,” or “There are too many guns already in the United States” — don’t be fooled. Such arguments are nothing but self-serving conjecture meant to obscure conservative responsibility for inaction. And if anyone suggests that it doesn’t matter what weapon a would-be murderer or terrorist has at his disposal, play them the clip of Mateen firing 24 shots in nine seconds. Then play it for them again.
If conservative arguments about the futility of gun control are self-serving conjecture, perhaps so are liberal arguments about its guaranteed efficacy. Again, thanks in part to Congress’s policy of ignorance, we don’t know what effect any given gun-control policy would have. But is evidence even necessary here? Should this be an empirical argument? Or is the proper response to a tragedy like Orlando, or San Bernadino, or Sandy Hook, obvious?
When conservatives fall back on empirical, rather than moral, arguments, they tacitly admit as much. Conservative pundits and politicians have to argue that gun control won’t work because they’ve lost the argument over its moral rectitude — over whether the tradeoffs it entails are worth making. At this point, minimal gun control would represent a tradeoff between preserving the unmitigated right to purchase and own weapons, and trying to protect our friends and family. That’s a tradeoff that most Americans are willing to make: huge majorities support expanded background checks, while solid majorities support generally tightening the country’s gun laws. On the other hand, there is no moral urgency to arguments against basic gun control measures. The Supreme Court’s watershed Heller decision, which enshrined an individual’s right to own firearms, was a legal Frankenstein based on an originalist anachronism. What’s more, the majority opinion explicitly left open the possibility of gun control measures that respected the individual right. There is nothing sacred or even moderately compelling about an individual’s right to own a military-grade assault rifle. Just the opposite.
We might not know how to stop gun violence. We can’t be sure of which policies will work, but this is no excuse not to try, especially when the moral calculus is so clear-cut. We are weighing the right to easily obtain military-grade weapons against the imperative to try to preserve human life. So as we try to prevent the next massacre, an obvious starting point is to make it much harder, if not impossible, to buy assault rifles designed to kill as many people as possible. It is also obvious that we should mandate universal background checks — it is beyond belief that we do not yet do this. And it defies logic that people on terror watch lists can buy guns as easily as anyone else. When Senate Republicans defeated a bill last December to fix this incomprehensible legal failure, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) argued that such legislation might infringe upon the rights of people mistakenly put on the terror watch list. Cornyn is currently sponsoring legislation to mandate a 72-hour waiting period for people on the list to buy a gun. Perhaps instead, people on the list should be permanently barred from buying a gun, and people mistakenly added to it should be taken off?
Gun violence has many causes. Its perpetrators are often mentally ill, a societal problem that we are only beginning to acknowledge. They are often troubled young men, perhaps alienated by modern society (Conservatives love to point this out because it allows them to be conservative twice over: they can defend guns by critiquing our heartless, tradition-less modern condition). When we dedicate hours of news coverage to the personal lives and twisted fantasies of mass murderers, we transmit the idea of the mass shooting as a cultural meme for other sick young men to imitate. But the one thing that all gun violence has in common? Guns. Acknowledging the many factors in gun violence shouldn’t prevent us from addressing the most obvious one.
To hear some conservatives argue, though, you’d think that legislating the end of alienation, mental illness and terrorism would be easier than keeping potential terrorists from legally purchasing assault rifles. Such arguments are a smokescreen to obscure conservatives’ responsibility for a national moral failure, a black mark on the country’s conscience. Our national character is at stake in this debate. And it’s not gun owners as a whole who oppose such legislation: polls indicate that they support universal background checks in the same overwhelming numbers as other citizens. Rather, it is the National Rifle Association and the constituency it represents: gun manufacturers and would-be militiamen, a coalition whose combination of self-interest and paranoia stands in the way of background checks, bans for people on the terror watch-list, and an assault ban. Conservative opinionists have given this group a varnish of legal and moral legitimacy they do not deserve.
But collective moral failures don’t just reflect badly on the obstinate few and their enablers. They also define who we are as a country. That’s why the NRA opposes even the slightest tightening of our gun laws: changing our laws in the wake of a massacre would be saying, “We are a country that values the lives of our citizens more than the unmitigated right to own weapons designed to kill people.” That’s not the kind of country the NRA wants us to be. And that’s not the kind of country we are right now.
Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora — all these were tragedies twice over. In each case, the first was the massacre itself. The second was another episode in an ongoing saga of moral and political failure. Arguments about the potential effectiveness of this or that policy obscure the moral terms of the debate over gun control, but when you weigh the right to purchase a Sig Sauer MCX as easily as possible against the imperative to try to preserve human lives, the magnitude of our moral failure becomes clear. Conservatives’ favorite argument — that we shouldn’t pass gun laws because criminals will just violate them anyways — amounts to an argument against law itself. But given that upcoming legislation to expand background checks and prevent terror suspects from purchasing guns seems likely to fail, that argument seems to be winning. Our country’s moral stature, on the other hand, is losing.