The powerful AR-15 rifle has received increased attention and scrutiny following the devastating shootings at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York that killed 10 Black patrons, and the school shooting massacre of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas.
The recent spate of gun violence across the US has ignited another round of gun control negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who was previously endorsed by the National Rifle Association but has since become a negotiator on gun reform, told CNN he would support raising the age to purchase semi-automatic weapons to 21. Conversely, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana has said that some people need an AR-15 to shoot feral pigs. Mr Cassidy has since become one of the other negotiators working on a compromise deal.
To get a better understanding of how important AR-15s are to Republicans, The Independent sent emails to scores of Republican senators seeking comment on whether they own or have ever fired an AR-15. Similarly, The Independent spoke to 13 Republican senators on Capitol Hill to press lawmakers on their relationship to the firearms. The Independent also contacted the offices of Senators Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Boozman of Arkansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Richard Shelby of Alabama, none of whom responded.
Here’s what the Republican senators reached by The Independent said about their own experiences – or lackthereof – with the powerful rifles.
Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas told The Independent that he received one as a gift.
“Target practice,” he said. “My son got me one so we use it at our farm.”
When asked what he thought about potential proposals to limit use of the AR-15, Dr Marshall, an OB/GYN, said “I guess I haven’t heard or seen what they’re talking about”.
Mr Cassidy for his part, said he has used them in the past.
“I don’t own one, but I’ve shot one,” he said.
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri also said he has shot an AR-15 rifle.
“I do not own one but a family member owns one,” he said. “There’s a range out where I live.”
Mr Hawley said he personally knows plenty of people who own AR-15s for “sporting”.
“But also, safety,” he added. “I know, frankly, a number of women who have ARs in Missouri and it’s for their personal safety, especially if they’re single.”
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, usually one of the most verbose senators on Capitol Hill, was more reserved when asked about his experience with the gun.
“I have not owned one,” he said. “I have shot one.” When asked a follow-up on the Senate train, he said “That’s all I’ve got for ya.”
Senator John Cornyn, the lead Republican negotiator on guns, also told The Independent that he has shot an AR-15 in the past, while Senator Lindsey Graham, who has worked with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on a grant program to promote “red flag laws”, to prevent people who pose a threat to themselves or others obtaining a gun, has said multiple times in the past that he owns an AR-15.
Ban and boom
Twenty years ago AR-15-style rifles returned to the market after a ban introduced by Bill Clinton lapsed under pressure from the NRA.
There are now roughly 20 million of the weapons in the US, according to a 2020 survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group.
The rifle enjoys widespread use in shooting sports by firearm enthusiasts who enjoy the model’s semiautomatic design and high capability for customisation; one owner described it as “less a model of rifle than it is an open-source, modular weapons platform that can be customized for a whole range of applications” in a 2016 op-ed for Vox.
Its involvement in mass shooting attacks has also become a fixture of debate since the ban lapsed.
The AR-15 has been used in numerous high-casualty mass shootings, including the recent shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo and Tulsa, as well as other incidents in past years including the massacre in Las Vegas, the shooting at a Texas Wal-Mart in 2019 as well as the Sandy Hook attack and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida
As a result, president Joe Biden, who as a senator passed the last assault weapons ban, has called for a ban on assault rifles like the AR-15 as well as high-capacity magazines. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored the original assault weapons ban, wrote legislation last year proposing a ban on assault weapons, which would include the AR-15. Democratic Representative Don Beyer of Virginia told Business Insider of his plans to levy a 1,000 per cent tax on the AR-15. But as Democrats begin negotiations with Republicans, an assault rifle ban seems unlikely.
Democrat senator and lead gun control advocate Chris Murphy told CNN that any legislation would not ban the weapons.
From the opinions and personal experiences of lawmakers shared with The Independent that comes as no surprise.
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a military veteran, told The Independent: “I am a shooter, I have participated in gun sports, I was on my battalion’s team when I was in South Carolina. And I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
Sen Dan Sullivan of Alaska, for his part, said that he has shot a number of weapons during his time in the US Marines.
“I own a lot of firearms, probably more than most,” Mr Sullivan, a Marine Corps veteran who shot a television in his first successful Senate campaign in 2014, said. “I don’t own an AR-15 but I’m colonel in the Marines; I’ve shot every firearm that’s known to man.”
Senator Rick Scott, a veteran of the US Navy who signed gun legislation when he was governor of Florida after the school shooting massacre in Parkland, gave a similar response.
“I’ve gotten to shoot World War II rifles, weapons when I was governor, I’ve shot a variety of guns,” said Mr Scott, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. At the same time, he said he was open to changes to protect people.
“I think it’s clear people ought to be informed about guns and I believe in the Second Amendment and I’m going to do everything to support the Second Amendment, but I don’t believe that people that are threatening to harm themselves and threatening to harm others should have access guns as long as they have due process,” he said.
At the same time, he thought emergency risk protection orders should be handled on the state level.
Others were more reserved. Senator Tom Cotton, a retired Army Ranger, said “no comment.”
When Senator Rob Portman of Ohio was asked, he said “have you?”. When pressed, he said he didn’t know. Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said he’s shot “various firearms.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, said she has shot multiple firearms as well.
“I couldn’t tell you if it was an AR-15, but I’ve shot something similar, yes.”
When asked about talks about limiting AR-15s, she said, “We’ve got a lot of talks going on. I’d rather just wait and see what happens.”
Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota said he’s shot them as well.
“I’ve fired them, I’ve never owned one,” he said.
In response to Democratic efforts to limit AR-15s, he said “I don’t think they can get the job done and I certainly would not support it. In fact, I think even trying to define what they consider an assault rifle is going to be a whole lot more difficult than most of them would imagine.”
Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said he has shot them in the past.
“Shoot cans and stuff”, he said of his experience with them. “It’s no different from other rifles I have.”
When asked what he thought of Democrats’ focus on the AR-15, he said he was waiting to see what Democrats would craft. But he was not convinced he could vote on legislation.
“Not unless they can convince me that they stop the problem that we’re having,” he said. “Can they convince me that whatever they pass will stop the mass murders?”
In the past, other Republicans have used AR-15s as a means of showing their pro-gun bona fides. When Senator Ted Cruz began seeking the Republican nomination for president, he famously wrapped slices of bacon around the muzzle of an AR-15 to use its heat as a means of cooking the bacon. Representative Vicky Hartzler, a Republican seeking the GOP nomination for Senate in Missouri, sent a mailer of her holding such a rifle.
House Democrats are attempting to pass ambitious gun legislation after the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo.
But Democrats in the Senate have only 50 seats, meaning they need to win over 10 Republican senators to pass any kind of legislative deal.
The most probable deal that could be reached would likely focus on an emergency risk protection law.
Some Republicans, including Mr Cornyn, said he was not sure about raising the age limit for purchases of semiautomatic firearms because two circuit courts have held that such a limit would be unconstitutional.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell named Mr Cornyn to be the top Republican to negotiate with Senators Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“They continue to progress and every day we’re closer to an agreement, not further away and that’s very positive,” he told The Independent.
On Monday, Mr Cornyn bristled at the idea of there being a deadline for a gun reform deal after Mr Murphy said Monday that he hoped for a deal at the end of this week.
“I don’t think arbitrary deadlines help us very much,” Mr Cornyn said.
In response, Mr Murphy said on Tuesday that he was fine with there not being a deadline for the talks.
“I don’t disagree,” he said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction. I think we should take the time we need to get it right. I think there’s an urgency from the American people that we act fast. But we should get it right.”
The efforts come also as the White House initiates a full-court press, inviting Oscar-winning actor and Uvalde native Matthew McConaughey to visit the White House and deliver a speech about his home-town victims.
On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing in response to the recent deadly mass shootings, featuring testimony from family members of the victims of the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres.