Overview:

Yes, AR-15-style rifles are inherently deadly—and they are also exponentially worse for victims than any handgun.

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Why does the United States all-too-casually allow virtually anyone to buy an AR-15-style rifle, a fearsomely lethal weapon millions of American civilians have already joyfully acquired?

I ask myself that question every time one of these awful weapons is used to kill many, many innocent people in a matter of minutes or even seconds—including the massacres at Columbine High School in 1999 in Littleton, Colorado (13 killed, 20 injured); in 2019 at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart (20 killed, 26 injured), and, most recently, in 2022 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (21 killed, more than a dozen wounded).

It’s an epidemic. At least 2,000 people have been murdered in U.S. mass shootings since 1999, and just this year 95 incidents of gunfire on American school grounds have left 40 dead and 76 injured. In 2020, firearms surpassed motor-vehicle accidents and drug overdoses as the No. 1 cause of death, many of them suicides, for young Americans between the ages of one and 19.

People are terrified of being under armed

It appears the main reason we as a society legally allow these uber-deadly weapons to freely proliferate throughout the country is not that the Second Amendment enshrines the right for Americans to “keep and bear” firearms. Technically, it does not. In fact, in 1990, then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a “rock-ribbed” conservative Republican appointed by Richard Nixon, slammed that interpretation as “a fraud on the American public.”

The real reason guns are ever-present in the U.S. is that a whole lot of people (about 67 percent of gun owners)—including lawmakers and judges—feel an urgent need to buy them for protection, according to a Pew Research survey. That means they’re fearful.

Gun manufacturers play on these fears.

In an essay this may in The Atlantic magazine, Andrew Exum, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2015-2017, noted that gun-makers’ scary marketing enticed Americans to buy 40 million guns in the last two years alone (about 8 million of them were AR-15-style rifles). Wrote Exum:

[T]he simple commercial problem facing firearms manufacturers has not changed: They make highly durable goods. Firearms can be passed down through generations. To meet growth targets, then, firearms manufacturers must figure out ways to scare or otherwise motivate people who already own firearms to buy more firearms, .

For decades, these firearms manufacturers have—in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways—convinced white people that they need to buy arsenals to protect themselves from people of color. More recently, thanks in part to various shootings perpetrated by those heavily armed white people, people of color have responded by arming themselves in greater numbers, which must delight the firearms manufacturers.

In a 2018 New York Times column, “No Country for Young Men With AR-15s,” conservative writer Ross Douthat observed that,

A fetishization of guns and violence is … a real American cultural phenomenon, perhaps especially among alienated, isolated young men.

An AR rifle is also cost-effective in that rather than just being a firearm it’s also an “an open-source, modular weapons platform” that can be customized for a whole range of uses, from wilderness hunting to urban warfare, wrote Jon Stokes in a 2016 Vox essay.

“So cops and civilians buy AR-15s because that one gun can be adapted to an infinite variety of sporting, hunting, and use-of-force scenarios by an amateur with a few simple tool,” writes Stokes. “An AR-15 owner doesn’t have to buy and maintain a separate gun for each application, nor does she need a professional gunsmith to make modifications and customizations. In this respect, the AR-15 is basically a giant Lego kit for grownups.”

However, it’s problematic to take this mentality a step further and imagine the only things stopping bad guys with guns are good guys with ARs.

‘Good guys with guns’ are not a panacea

A recent Harvard University study revealed that “few criminals are shot by decent law-abiding citizens” each year in the U.S. In a report titled “Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use,” the Harvard Injury Control Research Center pointed out that,

To believe fully the claims of millions of self-defense gun uses each year would mean believing that decent law-abiding citizens shot hundreds of thousands of criminals. But the data from emergency departments belie this claim, unless hundreds of thousands of wounded criminals are afraid to seek medical care. But virtually all criminals who have been shot went to the hospital, and can describe in detail what happened there.

A CBS News report in 2013 warned that people should understand the statistics of gun ownership before putting such a weapon in their homes:

Multiple groups, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, urge Americans not to keep guns in their homes because of overwhelming evidence that homes with guns are more likely to also be homes with suicides, murders and gun-related accidents.

Bad guys do get stopped with guns, but statistically, in a country where more than one third of households contain a working firearm, far more individuals, especially children, are accidentally shot. In addition to the number of children wounded or killed by firearms, women also disproportionately find themselves at the wrong end of a gun in their own homes, with a current or former romantic partner typically pulling the trigger.

‘AR’ doesn’t stand for ‘assault rifle’

A lot of misinformation surrounds AR-type rifles, and the myths may be part of their allure.

In fact, the AR-15 (AR stands for the first manufacturer, Armalite, not “assault rifle”) was originally designed in the 1950s as a fully automatic U.S. military combat rifle that later morphed into various military versions over the years, such as the M1, M4, M14, and M16.

What primarily distinguishes AR-style rifles from military versions is that the former are only semi-auto, shooting only one bullet per trigger pull, while combat rifles either fire continuously when the trigger is pulled and held or, more usually, sport a lever for three shots per pull.

However, civilian AR-15s can still fire a brisk 60 rounds a minute, and can be turned full-auto (allowing up to 400 rounds a minute) using a so-called “bump stock” technique.

But the most terrifying feature of AR-15-style rifles—besides their ease of use and deadly accuracy—is the ability of one type of AR ammo,“tiny, needle-nosed bullets,” to inflict, as one of the rifle’s designers noted, “maximum wound effect.” 

First responders at mass shootings where assailants’ weapons of choice are AR-15-type rifles say gaping head wounds often leave victims completely unrecognizable.

AR-15 bullets virtually ‘explode’ inside the body

An article in the Fort Meyers, Florida, News-Press explained:

AR-15s have a higher muzzle velocity than some other rifles [and all handguns] and bullets leaving them at such a fast speed—nearly three times the speed of sound—cause more damage to bones and organs. They’re also more likely to break apart inside a body, causing even more damage.

A compelling demonstration aired by CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program—using gelatin as a stand-in for human tissue—showed how an AR-15 bullet virtually “explodes” inside the body, causing horrific and often fatal wounds. Bullets from lower-velocity weapons, like pistols, leave narrow, straight-line paths of less destruction.


Read: The deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history


First responders at mass shootings where assailants’ weapons of choice are AR-15-type rifles say gaping head wounds often leave victims completely unrecognizable.

With up to 100-shot magazine “drums” available for AR-15s, the potential carnage they represent is hideously massive. And it takes less than five seconds to replace a spent magazine with a new, fully loaded one.

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AR-15-style firearms ‘the perfect killing machines’

Dr. Peter Rhee, a leading trauma surgeon and retired captain with 24 years of active-duty service in the U.S. Navy, told Rolling Stone magazine in a 2018 interview that AR-15 wounds are spectacularly more vicious than those of handguns.

As the bullet strikes the body, the payload of kinetic energy rips open a cavity inside the flesh–essentially inert space–which collapses back on itself, destroying inelastic tissue, including nerves, blood vessels and vital organs. “It’s a perfect killing machine. … A handgun [wound] is simply a stabbing with a bullet,” says Rhee. “It goes in like a nail.” With the high-velocity rounds of the AR-15, he adds, “it’s as if you shot somebody with a Coke can.”

Besides its explosive, bone-shattering killing power, though, what makes this weapon so attractive to mass shooters, most of whom are disaffected adolescents and young men?


Read: Did pious past drive Georgia shooter to slaughter Asian women?


‘Use What They Use’: AR-15 ads sell warrior ethos

Tim Dickenson, the writer of the Rolling Stone article, described his first-ever trip to a shooting range with an instructor.

My trainer–a pale-eyed ex-cop named Chris–hands me an AR made by Daniel Defense, which markets its guns with photographs of U.S. soldiers and the tag line “Use What They Use.”

What could be more empowering for a boy or young man with character and masculinity issues than to be armed like real-life soldiers?

Dickenson added,

“Despite the menacing look of the weapon, Chris assures me, “Little kids can shoot ’em–there’s so little recoil.”

How convenient. And how unfortunate for the victims of mass homicides.

‘The most popular firearm’ in America

AR rifles are now “the most popular firearm in the U.S.,” with millions in circulation, CBS reported in its recent “60 Minutes” episode.

We used to have a federal “assault weapons” ban in the U.S., although the AR is not, technically, a military assault weapon (those are full-auto). But Congress let it lapse.

Still, AR rifles are not the only semi-automatic guns out there in the American nation. All of them are far deadlier in the aggregate than, say, revolvers or switchblades.

To my mind, banning AR rifles wouldn’t do much to mitigate the exponentially surging epidemic of mass murder in the U.S. A semi-auto-armed mass shooter could still annihilate a lot of people very quickly.


Related: Mass killings: Why we need to show the murdered innocents


Banning or severely restricting semi-automatic guns of any kind—rifle or pistol—might have a much better chance of decisive impact than just the AR. And banning or restricting any ammunition that causes explosive wounds inside victims would hardly hurt, either.

And that’s after mandated universal background checks, record-keeping for all gun sales—private or commercial—and firearm locking requirements in homes.

If Americans cannot keep themselves safe in their homes with non-auto pistols and shotguns, then something must be very wrong in society that guns can’t solve. And if we also feel the urgent need to pack heat in public, something is surely wronger.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...