Blog No. 161. The Sutherland Massacre and the Challenge of the AR-15

Why the AR-15 is America's Most Popular Rifle


The day after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, White House Counselor Kelly Anne Conway offered the familiar response of those for whom the Second Amendment—and their own boundless interpretations of it—are Holy Writ. She attacked anyone who would “politicize” the event by calling for increased gun control measures. This was not the time, Conway said to speak of gun control. To do so, she complained, was “disrespectful of the dead,” a banal whinge to which the most appropriate response is: “rubbish.” On the contrary, if the tragic outrage became a stimulus for adoption of effective gun control measures, it would be a fitting honor for the Sutherland victims and give them a portion of the justice they deserve.

From Japan, the President chimed in with another familiar reaction: “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.” A columnist from the Kansas City Star provided  one of the more telling ripostes to Conway and Trump:

Is it an OK time to note that those who don’t want anything done about guns never do anything about mental illness, either? Like expanding treatment, which costs money and which would have been further limited by Medicaid cuts in the failed GOP health care bill? Is it an OK time to mention that Trump signed a bill that made it easier for those with a mental illness to buy a gun? Or that legislation that would have expanded background checks and limited gun sales to terror suspects was blocked last year? An OK time to acknowledge that a bill to ban “bump stocks,” which made the Las Vegas shooting so deadly, does not have a single Republican co-sponsor?

Most supporters of gun control recognize that even if this is finally the time to “do something” about gun control, the way forward is far from clear. The political power of the NRA and the gun manufacturers remains a formidable, and possibly fatal, obstacle to legislation at the federal level and in many (though not all) states. Nevertheless, there is broad public support for gun control measures that, if mobilized, could be brought to bear on Congress. The findings of a Quinnipiac Poll of October 12, 2017 are illustrative:

American voters support stricter gun laws 60 – 36 percent, the highest level of support ever, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. The previous high support was 54 – 42 percent June 28.
Voters also support 73 – 25 percent, including 62 – 34 percent among Republicans and 67 – 29 percent among voters in households where there is a gun, a ban on modifications to make a semi-automatic weapon fire more like an automatic weapon, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University Poll finds.
Consistent with every Quinnipiac University poll since February 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre, American voters support 94 – 5 percent requiring background checks for all gun purchases. Voters in gun households support universal background checks 93 – 6 percent. Support for other nationwide gun measures is:

  • 79 – 19 percent for a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases;

  • 64 – 32 percent for a ban on the sale of assault weapons;

  • 86 – 12 percent for a ban of the sale of guns to people convicted of a violent crime;

  • 58 – 38 percent for stricter regulations on ammunition sales;

  • 64 – 34 percent for a ban on high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

A proposal to ban assault weapons deserves particular attention, not only because an AR-15 assault weapon was used in the Sutherland Springs shooting, but similar weapons were used in the other notorious mass killings of recent memory. It has become the weapon of choice for mass killers:

Las Vegas: 58 people killed, over 500 others injured, Oct. 1, 2017

Orlando, Florida: 49 people killed, 53 others wounded, June 12, 2016

San Bernardino, CA: 14 people killed, 22 others wounded, Dec. 2, 2015

Colorado Springs, Colorado: 3 people killed, Oct. 31, 2015

Chattanooga, Tennessee: 4 people killed, 3 others wounded, July 16, 2015

A listing of earlier shootings, including the horrific school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, can be found in USA Today, “Why mass shooters are increasingly using AR-15s

Given the carnage, it is hardly surprising that many would ask why we must suffer the peril of what the New York Times called “assault weapons adapted from military warfare and marketed in the spurious name of sportsmanship.”  There are answers to that question and, while advocates of gun control may not find them persuasive, it behooves us to know what they are and be prepared to debate them. As a starting point, the NRA has called the AR-15 America’s most popular rifle.” What is the AR-15 and why is it so popular?

The NRA first explains that the AR-15 is not an “assault rifle:” the initials AR do not stand for Assault Rifle but merely reflect the fact that the name of the company that first developed it, ArmaLite Rifle. While the first ARs were automatic rifles sold to the military, the rifle was modified for civilian sales to be semi-automatic, i.e., a single pull of the trigger discharges only a single round. The rate of fire can be greatly increased by kind of “bump stock” used by the Las Vegas shooter, but that is a separate issue. Such devices can be barred by legislation or, possibly by regulation by the ATF.  Although the NRA has indicated that it is open to regulation of bump stocks,  and there was initially considerable support for such regulation from Republicans as well as Democrats, it appears to have waned.

Even without a bump stock, the AR-15 is a formidable weapon with a variety of uses. According to the NRA, “Today, the AR-15 has soared in popularity amongst gun owners, due to a wide-range of factors. It is customizable, adaptable, reliable  [and] can be used in sport shooting, hunting and self-defense situations.” How essential is the AR-5 to the activities cited by the NRA? An AR-15 may be fun for target shooting, but might not other weapons be almost as much fun? As for hunting and home defense, critics argue that the AR-15 is not ideal for either. Justin Peters, a self-described Second Amendment supporter wrote a 2016 Slate essay, “The NRA Claims the AR-15 Is Useful For Hunting and Home Defense. Not Exactly.” Peters observed:

It’s odd to cite hunting and home defense as reasons to keep selling a rifle that’s not particularly well suited, and definitely not necessary, for either. Bolt-action rifles and shotguns can also be used for hunting and home defense. Unfortunately, those guns aren’t particularly lucrative for gun makers. The lobby’s fervent defense of military-style semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 seems motivated primarily by a desire to protect the profits in the rapidly growing “modern sporting rifle” segment of the industry.

Comments from a number of gun owners took issue with Peter’s assessments of AR-15s for hunting and home defense, but other gun enthusiasts have an explicitly political concern. One such AR-15 owner was quoted by ABC in “AR-15 Owners Explain Why They Have Their Guns.” For example, Ben Wilhelm, a veteran who served in Afghanistan and is an NRA instructor, owns an AR-15 but doesn’t view it as a substitute for a handgun:

The thing about an AR is it’s kind of the go-to firearm for not only defending yourself from mobs of people, but you’ve got to remember what the Second Amendment was written for defending yourself from a tyrannical government,” Wilhelm said.

“When guns are taken away, that’s when genocides happen. Hitler disarmed everyone in Germany and in every country he conquered, and he killed 11 million people, and nobody could stop him. Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao [did the same]. It’s not about gun control. It’s about control. It’s about elites having control,” he said.

While the NRA has not embraced such arguments, it has not disavowed them either. And a 2013 Rasmussen poll found that “65 percent See Gun Rights As Protection Against Tyranny.” As a USNews article at the time, “Guns and the Tyranny of Extreme Rhetoric” suggested, the Rasmussen poll may have been an outlier. Nevertheless, while many of us would dismiss the tyranny argument out of hand as far-fetched, it cannot be ignored.

Granting that uses of AR-15s for target shooting, hunting, and home protection reflect a measure of legitimate interests, the issue is how much weight those interests deserve– measured against the horror of mass shootings in churches, schools and other public venues. Although deaths from mass shootings and from AR-15s represent a small fraction of all gun deaths, they have a unique significance. When a terrorist plans an attack, by guns or automobile or explosives, his object is not merely a body count, but the terror it may create among the rest of the public. And terror is a product of any mass shooting, whether or not the shooter is part of a conspiracy or motivated by ideology. We may declare our refusal to be intimidated, and so we must, but who today can feel as safe as we once did, attending church, going to a concert or sending children off to school?

Still, if mass shootings are a stain on the American conscience, it is a stain that cannot be easily removed. Assault rifles were banned under federal law from 1994 to 2004, when the ban expired. While some may debate how effective the ban was in reducing gun deaths, there is substantial evidence that it had a significant effect. (See, HuffPost, “Did the Assault Weapons Ban Work?”) Moreover, if the ban were reinstated, it might be made even more effective by coupling it with a limitation on magazine size. Why is it so difficult to do that?

One answer is the political clout of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. Perhaps even more important may be attitudes among the general public, a discrepancy in passion between advocates of gun control and their opponents. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru put it succinctly:

[A] fact that politicians in both parties know well: There are many more intense, relatively single-minded supporters of gun rights than opponents of it. An elected official is much more likely to lose office because he voted for regulating guns than because he voted against it.

In short, advocates of gun control must not only seek to understand the interests of their opponents, and prepare to meet their arguments, but also find ways of filling the “passion gap” to level the political playing field.

Finally, readers should be aware that there is pending in the Supreme Court a petition for certiorari in a case that may determine whether, and to what extent, regulation of handguns is constitutional. In Kolbe v. Hogan, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Maryland ban of semi-automatic rifles and detachable ammunition magazines that exceed ten rounds. The Court was scheduled to consider whether to hear the case at their conference on November 9, but it was rescheduled for the November 21 conference. If the Court takes the case, will comment further.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 161. The Sutherland Massacre and the Challenge of the AR-15

  • After the horrific mass murder of young children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elentary School several years ago, I thought we would see major gun control reform in this country. Yet the NRA did not wait long to kill any reforms whatsoever.

    Murderers roam the country and linatics often purchase guns of all kinds without difficulty. Gun killings in the United States dwarf those of virtually every other country on earth. When will it stop? Is our country doomed to remain the most violent country in the world?

    Our so-called representative government is an abject failure. Our political leaders are are cowards and crooks. Our president is a totally selfish and immoral man.

    When will America be America again?

    No one should be allowed to purchase a gun without first undergoing an intensive background check and demonstrating a solid justification to obtain a permit to own a gun. All current gun owners should be required to obtain permits or turn in their guns to the police.

    The constant refrain from the gun lobby is “guns don’t kill, people do.” Yet we all know that is false.

    Our country is on a disaster course. An unsafe place to send your kids to school, go to a movie or concert, make a trip to the grocery store. Does any rational person want to live here?

  • Doug: thanks for raising this topic, even though the topic generates sadness and anger: sadness at the continuing bloodshed of children and anger that we can’t stop the bloodshed of children.
    I have a difficult time understanding the logic of the Supreme Court’s decision on the 2nd Amendment: the language seems only to support the idea of a trained militia having access to arms. Yet the court uses that language to confer the right of individuals to have access to weapons like the AR-15. Seems like a stretch to me.

    • Hi Randall. The Roberts Court created a constitutional right of individual gun ownership out of whole cloth. But it explicitly left open the door to reasonable regulation. If Congress won’t act, state and local governments sould be prevailed upon to do so.

      Best. -Roger

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