The AR-15 rifle, with its unmistakable, nasty-looking contours has become the poster child of the gun debate. Gun control advocates demonize the rifle as much, I think, for its lethal appearance as for its ability to kill people. Meanwhile, gun enthusiasts and the NRA talk like they’d sooner lose limbs than part with their tricked-out Bushmasters. Now, I own a handful of firearms, most of which are shotguns for shooting trap and sporting clays. On any given weekend at the gun club, I’ll pull the trigger of a 12-gauge a hundred-plus times. On top of that, I occasionally take my .38 Smith and Wesson revolver to the club for some casual pistol shooting—though I don’t enjoy handguns nearly as much.
All this is to say I’m no wuss when it comes to guns. I can handle a shotgun’s explosive discharge and its dull thud against my shoulder—over and over again. I’m unfazed by the crack of a .357 pistol or its irrepressible kick.
But, honestly, AR-15s scare the shit out of me.
As for my politics, I’m an Independent who leans left on social issues. I’m disillusioned with both Republicans and Democrats, though the GOP’s embrace of Donald Trump has taken the party to unfathomable new lows. I don’t love big government but I want government to be big enough to care for its most vulnerable citizens. I hate paying taxes but I’ll happily do so if corporations and billionaires pay their fair share. I also believe that America has a massive gun violence problem. Considering that nearly 40,000 people died from gun injuries in 2018—12 deaths for every 100,000 people—that last point isn’t really debatable, but somehow everyone argues it anyway. The painfully tautological argument goes something like this: The Right says more armed citizens will prevent bad guys from shooting up schools and churches—so make guns even more widely available than they are now. The Left argues there are just too many unregulated firearms in the country and that’s why people are dying everywhere. As far as I can tell, we’ve made about zero progress on resolving this debate.
An Especially Terrifying Bang
My first experience with an AR-15 was at a gun club in Orlando, FL. My brother and I had an afternoon free so we rented pistols for some target shooting at a local range. As I was plinking away with a 9mm semiautomatic, I heard a terrific bang that rattled my teeth and made me think I’d forgotten my earplugs. I looked at the station to my left and saw a guy with an AR-15 taking aim at a distant paper target. When he pulled the trigger again, I felt the discharge deep in my ribcage like a sonic boom. “Is that guy shooting some kind of special ammunition?” I asked the range attendant.
“Nah,” he said with a knowing smile. “Those are standard .223 rounds. They’re just loud as hell.”
Every time that guy shot his rifle, my brother and I flinched. I’d never reacted like that to a firearm before. However, being a typical male who can’t resist dangerous things, I was fascinated by the sheer power of that rifle. So the next time I was in Florida—this time on a business trip with time to spare—I rented a Stag Arms AR-15 at a local shooting range. After a brief tutorial on the gun’s operation, I filled a magazine with .223 cartridges, snapped it into the rifle, and took my position. The rifle was equipped with an impressive illuminated scope; spotting my target in its glowing red cross hairs made me feel like Chris Kyle from American Sniper. I steadied my breath and squeezed the trigger.
Now, by this time I had shot everything from BB guns to .45 caliber semiautomatic pistols, from .22 bolt-action rifles to .410 and 12-gauge shotguns. I’d felt a lot of guns go off in my hands. But nothing prepared me for this rifle. Unlike the dull report of a shotgun, the crack of an AR-15 is deafeningly loud and surprisingly sharp, cutting through my expensive earplugs like they weren’t there. The recoil was similarly pronounced, shoving my shoulder back with the belligerence of a drunk biker picking a fight. All in all, it was a very unpleasant gun to shoot—too loud and too jarring for my taste. All those movies showing guys with AR-15s blazing away at zombies didn’t come close to capturing the violence, the smell, the recoil of this vicious machine.
I shot 50 rounds before I gave up and returned the rifle to the range attendant. My assaulted ears rang all through lunch; and my shoulder was sore the whole next day.
Weapons for War, Not for Fun
A few months later, I was talking to Johnny, an ex-military workout friend of mine. I told him about my experience with the AR-15. For the record, Johnny stands an imposing 6′ 5″ and weighs in at 265 pounds. I could imagine him firing a rifle with both hands and barely feeling the recoil. When I mentioned the military’s weapon of choice, I expected his eyes to light up. To my great surprise, his face grew dark as if something I said triggered a bad memory. “Those guns are for war,” he said, “not fun.” He went on to describe in grisly detail the ballistic qualities of the .223 bullet and how, when it hits a human body, it leaves a trail of destruction far beyond anything a pistol round could inflict. “Those things are fucking scary,” Johnny added. “They have no place outside of the military.”
Chastened by his reaction, I went home and read up on the AR-15 and its powerful .223 round. Among other articles, I found a piece from The Atlantic by Heather Sher, a radiologist who treated victims from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. In the article, Sher recalls looking at the CT scan of a Parkland victim and how the patient’s organ looked like “an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.” She goes on to describe how the .223 round, relatively small compared to .38 or 9mm rounds, “leaves the barrel traveling almost three times faster than—and imparting more than three times the energy of—a typical 9mm bullet from a handgun.” The result is alarmingly extensive tissue damage. “The bullet,” she writes, “passes through the body like a cigarette boat traveling at maximum speed through a tiny canal.” The elastic tissue near the bullet moves away from the projectile “like waves of water displaced by the boat—and then returns and settles back.”
The Patient Would Never Make It
By means of this phenomenon called “cavitation,” the bullet causes a “swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path.” So devastating is the bullet’s impact that it doesn’t have to “hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding.” To further illustrate her point, Sher notes that handgun injuries to, for example, the liver are “generally survivable unless the bullet hits the main blood supply to the liver.” By contrast, an AR-15 round to the middle of the liver causes so much bleeding “the patient would likely never make it to the trauma center.”
Reading Sher’s firsthand account, I understood why Johnny’s expression had become so grave. He, like others who have trained with AR-15s, comprehended the difference between an instrument of war and a sporting firearm. The uniquely grotesque killing virtuosity of an AR-15, however thrilling to Chris Kyle wannabes at gun clubs and shooting ranges, has no reasonable place outside of military arsenals.
Having pulled the trigger of that matte-black beast 49 times more than I should have, I’ve since contented myself with the dull report of a 12-gauge and the orange dust of a shattered clay pigeon. If sensible gun regulation someday outlaws my beloved over-under shotgun, I’ll willingly part with it—if that’s what it takes to address firearm violence in our gun-besotted country.