In the coming days, a lot of you are going to be having conversations with friends and family, and I think it’s important to get your facts right. I see a lot of people saying the AR-15 is no more deadly than a handgun. In a mass shooting scenario, tactics matter much more than the choice of weapon. The Virginia Tech mass murderer, the worst mass shooting in history until Saturday, managed to do that with two ordinary handguns. But it’s not quite accurate to say a handguns and rifles are equal in lethality.
Bullet for bullet, rifles are generally more powerful and thus more deadly than handguns. It is accurate to say that the AR-15 no more or less lethal, bullet for bullet, than any other rifle chambered in the same caliber. It is accurate to say that the .223 Remington / 5.56x45mm (NATO designation) is a medium powered cartridge.
So what makes the AR-15 different? As a rifle goes, it has fantastic ergonomics. I have a lot of different rifles of military pedigree, and the ergonomics on most of them are pretty terrible. Even the venerable M1 Garand is pretty awful ergonomically, even though it’s far more powerful bullet for bullet than the AR-15. If I had to pick a military rifle that I would rank on my “enjoy shooting” list, the M1903A3 would probably rank not too far behind my AR-15s, and ahead of the M1 Garand.
The ergonomics of the AR-15:
- The pistol grip makes it easy to control
- It’s low recoil impulse, due to aligning the barrel with the stock, makes it easy to bring the sights back down on target.
- Easy to understand sights (even easier if you use one of the newer holographic sights).
- Intuitive safety (selector in the military M16/M4)
- Intuitive drop free mag release. You can have another magazine in your hand coming up when you drop the emptied one.
- Intuitive bolt release to slap the bolt carrier home once the magazine is inserted.
It is very easy to teach an untrained person to land accurate shots with an AR-15. I’ve seen people go from awkward to landing decent shots with just a few hours training (and I’m a horrible trainer!). In addition to the ergonomic features, proper ammunition won’t over-penetrate and risk hitting bystanders. This is why police departments have almost universally adopted the AR-15. This is why it’s become the standard in NRA high-power competition and 3-gun competition. This is why the AR-15 is now chosen often by civilians for home-defense. It’s also, unfortunately, why mass shooters choose it. The features that make the AR-15 easier for a novice to shoot accurately also make it easier for mass killers, most of whom are novices. There is probably some role that the media plays in suggesting it’s “the mass killer’s choice,” but that’s the truth of the matter. Could using a shotgun be more deadly? Sure. But the recoil of a shotgun is punishing, and the ergonomics of most shotguns aren’t remarkably good. I almost never bring out shotguns for novices unless they express a specific interest in shooting trap or skeet.
I think we rest on pretty firm ground to argue that firearms should be easy for novices to use. Unless you’re a seasoned competitive shooter, most gun owners, most police, and most people in the military are novices. They can exercise a base level of competence and safety when running their firearms, but Annie Oakley they are not. We should not be banning semi-automatic rifles, which truly aren’t especially more deadly than other semi-automatic rifles, just because they are easy for novices to use. This gets back to the base argument of gun control vs. gun rights: should arms belong only to the special elite, or is it a birthright of all citizens?
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