Twenty first-graders and six educators in a school in Connecticut. Twelve people watching a movie at a theatre in Colorado. Nine people at a college in Oregon. Fourteen county employees at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, Calif.
And 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
What do all these innocent people — sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and friends — have in common?
They were shot dead with a semi-automatic assault rifle that has become the weapon of choice for killers bent on taking as much human life as possible: the ArmaLite-15, or as it is more commonly known, the AR-15.
The AR-15 and other similar semi-automatic guns are at the heart of the ongoing battle over gun control in the United States.
Gun-control advocates want to bring back the assault rifle ban signed under President Bill Clinton in 1994, which prohibited civilian use of certain high-powered guns the government classified as assault weapons, as well as “large capacity magazines,” though that definition varied.
But for gun advocates, that would be an abortion of liberty. Besides, they argue, there are lots of deadly weapons that the ban wouldn’t cover, so what’s the difference?
The AR-15 is revered for its ability to fire rounds as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger. It’s light (about three kilograms fully loaded), versatile, loads quickly, and is accurate up to 500 yards and highly customizable.
Gun makers know their market
Its history dates back to the 1950s, and more than 200 companies manufacture their own version of the rifle.
“Gun makers’ target market is young men, and they’ve certainly figured out that young men tend to buy these kinds of weapons. So they market to them relentlessly,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
There’s also a huge after-market for the gun makers, with all kinds of expensive options to customize the rifle.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is also in on the action. It’s made an art of advertising all the different ways you can upgrade an AR-15. (The NRA’s Twitter account, which is usually quite active, has been silent since Friday.)
‘It’s got an aura of violence’
AR-15s have become extremely popular in the U.S. since Clinton’s decade-long ban ended in 2004. While it’s difficult to pin down a precise number, there’s at least three million in circulation, but that figure could be as high as five million, according to some estimates.
“It really looks like a battlefield gun,” says Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a non-profit, anti-gun organization based in Washington, D.C. “You can deck it out with features, it’s got an aura of violence that hangs around it.”
While proportionally speaking, AR-15s are involved in a very small number of homicides, they have undoubtedly become the weapon of choice for mass shooters, many of whom happen to be young men.
Hard-core Second Amendment supporters use the AR-15 like a symbol of liberty, while those who support stricter gun laws hold it up as an icon of policy gone wrong and proof the ban on some semi-automatic and automatic weapons should be reinstated.
‘Gun makers target market is young men, and they’ve certainly figured out that young men tend to buy these kinds of weapons.’
– Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center
“I think outsiders — people who don’t live here, who don’t really get the gun culture — they don’t understand how deep the symbolism of the AR-15 really goes,” Everitt says.
“The AR-15, because of its history and what it has come to represent — it is the ultimate form of resistance, for some people. It’s a ‘You want it? Come take it from my cold dead hands’ mentality.”
‘Poster boy’ for gun control
Of course, most law-abiding U.S. gun owners use AR-15s to hunt or at the range.
They’re also available in Canada, but can only be fired for target practice and in sanctioned competitions. The magazine is limited to five bullets.
Newfoundlander Marc Bennett has managed to gather more than 25,000 signatures on an e-petition to make the AR-15 legal for hunting in Canada. He’s a gun advocate and amateur gun safety guru who’s been watching the situation in the U.S. very closely.
He says weapons like the AR-15 are being used to scare regular people and build support for pro-gun-control politicians.
“It’s just the look of it. It’s no different than any other rifle with wood on it,” Bennett says. “It’s black, it’s intimidating. So these politicians who want to keep pushing gun control further and further are going to put it up as a poster boy for their agenda, because you can’t scare people with a regular old shotgun that maybe their granddad had growing up.”
Bigger gun problem
Joseph Blocher, a law professor at Duke University in North Carolina, supports “sensible” gun control, but agrees that weapons like the AR-15 hold “a disproportionate weight in our discussions about gun laws in [the U.S.].”
“These semi-auto assault-type guns are in the news, and I think most people thought they’d be banned after Sandy Hook, but it can’t just be about the assault rifle ban. There’s a slow drip of daily handgun deaths in cities around the country every day, and we need to address that too.”
Multiple gun policy experts CBC interviewed for this story expressed doubt that last weekend’s massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass killing by a single shooter in American history, will have any major influence on gun laws in the U.S. The NRA is among the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and right now guns like the AR-15 are gun makers’ bread and butter.
But, as Sugamann points out, “people get a glimpse of the real gun industry when horrific events like this happen, and maybe now things will move in the right direction a little bit.”
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