Easy to use, lightweight and highly accurate, the AR-15 has been dubbed “America’s favourite gun”.
Around one in 20 Americans own one of the semi-automatic rifles, with tens of millions of them in circulation across the country. But it’s also the weapon of choice for many mass killers — including the gunman responsible for Wednesday’s deadly shooting in Lewiston, Maine.
At least 22 people have been killed and 50 to 60 injured after a man, believed to be Robert Card, 40, used an AR-15 with a laser optic to open fire on a bowling alley filled with families, before continuing his rampage at a local restaurant. It marks the biggest mass shooting in the US this year — but the devastation caused by AR-15-armed shooters isn’t unfamiliar to the gun-loving country.
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Before the start of 2023, 10 of the deadliest US shootings since 2012 involved the use of AR-15s, according to analysis from The Washington Post. When 60 people were gunned down by a mass shooter at a festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the bullets came from an AR-15 the killer had fitted with a bump-stock device — which allowed him to unleash 90 rounds in a mere 10 seconds.
During the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the killer used an AR-15 to slaughter 20 children and six adults in less than 11 minutes. And on Valentine’s Day in 2018, Nicholas Cruz used an AR-15 he purchased legally to massacre 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
So why is a weapon that unleashes such mass devastation still the gun of choice for many Americans? Christ Waltz, the President and CEO of the AR-15 Owners of America claims its popularity can be credited to the ability to customise the rifle with various accessories.
“There are literally over a million configurations, and parts and colours. People talk about it being a Barbie doll for men. You could have different outfits for Barbie, and it’s the same with an AR-15 rifle,” he told the BBC.
It’s not its only appeal though, with the gun enthusiast adding: “It’s also just very easy to shoot. It’s lightweight and it’s very accurate. It’s simple to use for women and kids when they’re involved in shooting sports…it’s America’s modern sporting rifle. That’s what we call it.”
Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University who researches gun violence explained that while Americans once saw guns as objects used for hunting, after the early 90s an increasing number of US citizens began purchasing firearms to protect themselves and their property against criminals. This meant people suddenly wanted “the most lethal hardware they could get their hands on”.
But the professor, who sees the guns as “inanimate objects” that are only dangerous in the wrong hands, points out the brutal efficiency of the weapon that appeals to gun enthusiasts is also the same attribute that makes it the preferred option for mass shooters. “If you’re trying to kill a lot of people. They’re just very effective. You can fire that many bullets per second and at that velocity, it’s a perfect killing machine,” he explained.
Compared to handguns, the AR-15 has the ability to inflict much more damage to the human body due to its extreme speed. Its .223-caliber round contains enough propellant to shoot the bullet across the length of six football fields in a second.
When the bullet strikes the body it creates a shockwave that shreds tissue, severs nerves and causes massive bleeding. The sheer impact also has a blast effect that can cause internal injuries outside the bullet’s path and the devastation is even worse on a smaller body.
“As that bullet slows down that energy is so massive it has to go someplace, and your body will literally tear apart,” trauma surgeon Babak Sarani told The Washington Post. Critics of the rifle argue that it’s a weapon of war which serves no purpose for civilians.
The AR-15 was originally developed back in the 1950s by Armalite, a small arms engineering company the rifle gets its name from. But in 1959 Armalite sold the design to Colt, a firearms manufacturer who soon adapted it into a fully automatic version known as the M-16 for military use.
The weapon was first used in frontline service by the US Army in the mid-1960s during the early stages of the Vietnam War and by 1969 a modified version had become the standard weapon across the US military. When the Vietnam War ended, Colt started making semi-automatic versions of the rifle to sell to US gun enthusiasts and when the patent for the weapon expired in 1977 competitors like Remington, Smith & Wesson and Ruger followed suit.
But it wasn’t until after 9/11 that AR-15 sales started to skyrocket. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed into law a US federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and that year AR-15s made up just 2.2% of guns manufactured in America.
When the ban expired in 2004 and President George W Bush’s administration didn’t renew it, sales started to surge and by 2019 AR-15s made up 25% of all firearms produced, according to data from the NSSF and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Randy Luth, president of firearms manufacturer DPMS, who specialise in AR-15s, suggested their use during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan helped market the firearm to civilians.
“We made it look cool, the same reason you buy a Corvette,” he told the Washington Post.
Following another spell of shootings across the US in July, President Joe Biden issued a fresh call for a ban on assault weapons. But he’s currently being blocked by Republican lawmakers in Congress as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and pro-gun politicians claim banning AR-15s would be an attack on the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
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