At the moment, one part of our national, overdue, and generally underdone gun debate is about the AR-15, and specifically, why anybody would need one.
I read this article, "Why I Need An AR-15"
, and found it interesting, and started thinking about it.
I'd like to summarize the points in that article that I find relevant, and add a couple thoughts of my own. First, just to clarify, in the headline, he intended "Need" to be in hyperbole-quotes -- he doesn't actually NEED one, but just likes having one. The headline wasn't printed with it, though. So pretend they're there. He's not actually the kind of crazy person that actually thinks that way.
Section 1. What is an AR-15, anyway
An AR-15 isn't so much a gun as it is a gun system
. If you've ever watched "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", you may remember that Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin had these guns that were basically pistols that they could carry in shoulder holsters, not too bulky, and concealable under a jacket. Except, if they needed to, they could attach a silencer. Or they could load in tranquilizer darts. Or they could screw in a stock, a long barrel, and a sight, and use it as a sniper rifle. Or they could attach an extended magazine and a medium-length barrel, and switch some things, and use it as an assault rifle.
The AR-15 isn't that
versatile, but it's not that far off. They're made by a lot of different companies, and they are a very well-established design, and they're very reliable, very customizable, and not that expensive. They're made in every caliber down to the smallest. You can use an AR-15 for everything from hunting elk to squirrels, depending on what kind of parts you put on it.
The one thing it CAN'T do is fire full-auto. In theory, it COULD, but it's illegal to make one that does, and they've fixed the problem with it that made it able for people to modify it that way.
It is semiautomatic, which means that it fires one bullet every time you pull the trigger, like a pistol does. Pistols are either semiautomatic, or they are revolvers; in either case, pistols are one-trigger-pull, one-shot, and so are semiautomatic rifles.
Most rifles are semiautomatic. There's basically no reason to build them any other way. Bolt-action rifles do still exist, but only for very specialized purposes, like the most long-range military sniper rifles.
See, the way it works -- you have a cartridge. The cartridge is a little tube with gunpowder and primer in it, and, in front of it, a bullet jammed in. The hammer of the gun strikes a part of the bullet which has a pocket with a little bit of a chemical that goes off if you hit it hard enough, and that chemical lights off the gunpowder, and the gunpowder explodes and the bullet pops off the front like the world's most dangerous champagne cork.
After that, you need to do two things. You need to shove the old casing out of the chamber where that happened, and put a new cartridge in. You could design it so you open up a little door, and pull the cartridge out, and put a new one in, and close the door. But that is a lot of work, and you'd burn your fingers on the very, very hot cartridge that just had an explosion in it.
Or, you could make a sort of lever attached to a little bit of machinery that shoves the old one out, and puts a new one in. And that would be a lot easier. And that's a bolt-action rife, and it's way, way better.
But, as Newton said, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, which means that, when the bullet goes forward, the cartridge goes backward, so why not make the cartridge going backward push the lever itself, instead of YOU having to do it? And that's a semiautomatic rifle, and it's even less work.
And it turns out, it's not that much harder to build them that way, and so there really isn't much reason to build them any other way. There are a couple very specialized guns that don't use that, but not many. I think that in the biathlon, they use bolt-action rifles, because they want to save every single ounce of weight so they can ski faster, but I can't think of many other examples.
So the AR-15 is a highly customizable, highly configurable, very reliable, not toot expensive, semiautomatic rifle. And that's why people like it.
Section 2. Why is there a negative reaction to the AR-15 in particular, even more than most other weapons? Also, where I put asuggestion that has been mooted to ameliorate the murder problem.
So what do people who don't like about it dislike about it? Well, the biggest problem about it can be configured for almost any job -- and one of those configurations is very good at killing lots and lots of people in a mass murder.
And that is one reason that so many mass shootings are done with AR-15s. But the other reason why so many are done with AR-15s has to do with why so many more car crash deaths happen with passenger cars than with commercial vehicles -- because there are more of them than anything else.
Is the solution to get rid of the AR-15? Well, that's ONE solution. But there's a simpler solution that would do almost as well.
Get rid of the bits that you use to put the AR-15 into the mass-murder configuration. The other configurations aren't much of a problem. If people could use the AR-15 for all those other things it's good at, which is all of them, but NOT mass-murder, would that be good enough for most of us?
So, what is the most important component that turns the AR-15 from a good hunting-with, playing-with, and maybe even protecting yourself from home intruders which isn't actually a thing but at least people can sort of imagine that it would be a thing kind of rifle into a killing lots of people all at once rifle?
If you've got five rounds in your AR-15, you can shoot a deer, even shoot a deer a couple times to make sure it dies quickly and humanely. Maybe you can make an argument for ten rounds.
But you can't shoot an entire room full of people. To kill fifty people, the Orlando shooter shot something like two hundred rounds. If he'd only had five round magazine, that would be forty clips, and he'd be stopping shooting often enough that there would be a chance that people could tackle him. Or at least, have a chance to take cover and hide. Even ten-round magazines.
But you can easily get thirty-round magazines. Someone even makes a one-hundred round magazine. It looks really weird -- it's like, a double drum magazine. And, while there are legitimate reasons to own an AR-15, there is NOT a reason to own a hundred-round magazine except committing mass murder.
A "clip" is a bunch of cartridges stuck together that you can put into a magazine. A "magazine" is a thing that holds cartridges, ready to be fired. Some firearms just store all their cartridges in the gun, and that's an "internal magazine". But the thing that we see on TV when someone pulls something out of an empty gun and puts something else in, that's changing external magazines. It is, of course, much, much faster to change magazines than to load magazines, but still, it's a lot longer than shooting -- and you can only carry so many magazines.
And it's pretty easy to carry a lot of ammo -- a lot of clips -- but it's a lot harder to carry a lot of magazines. So you're either spending a LOT more time reloading, or you're carrying a LOT more weight, or both. And either one makes it harder to kill fifty people.
Indeed, let's ignore the whole "semiautomatic" thing. A bolt-action rifle with a hundred-round magazine would be way, way better at killing a room full of people than a semiautomatic rifle with a five-round magazine. "Semiautomatic" is a frightening sounding word, but it's really a less-significant factor in how deadly it is. It's not UNIMPORTANT, not by a long shot, but it's LESS important.
So that's the practical side.
Now let's talk about the emotional side.
Let's talk about the emotional reasons against the AR-15, more than against other firearms. In practical terms, until you've got the mass-murder configuration, the AR-15 is no more dangerous than any other rifle.
I perceive three emotional reasons why the AR-15 might be more frightening than, say, the Winchester .308.
The first, and possibly most significant -- it looks intimidating. And why? Because it looks like a military weapon.
And why is that?
Because form follows function.
Military rifles look that way because it's the most effective, easiest, cheapest, most reliable, and most comfortable way to build them. So, if you're building an effective, easy, relatively inexpensive, reliable, and comfortable weapon, it's going to look a lot like that. You'd have to go out of your way to make it look different, and you'd end up with an item that wasn't as good. It might be prettier, and that's not nothing -- aesthetics ARE an important part of life. But, if your aesthetic is "form follows function", then the AR-15 is what you end up with.
The second thing about it is that it's got a fairly intimidating name. I suspect that people make a mental conflation between "AR-15" and "AK-47". And the AK-47 is the most widespread military rifle in the world. The AK-47 is a weapon that IS only designed to kill people.
And I wonder if people who are thinking that there is no reason to own an AR-15 other than killing a lot of people are actually thinking about the AK-47, which actually IS primarily for killing a lot of people.
And even if someone knows that they're different, I wonder if the AR-15 doesn't pick up some of the same emotional resonance from the AK-47, because of the similarity in the name. I believe in the weak Sapir-Worf hypothesis, which suggests, among other things, that the words you use, and the words you know, influence how you feel about things. And if two words sound alike, one can pick up emotional resonances from the other. I mean, I know perfectly well that it comes from an old Germanic root which means "precise, or exact", and it means "no more generous than the absolute minimum necessary", but I'm still not comfortable even TYPING the word "niggardly".
So, if "niggardly", which I feel a little sick typing, is similar to a word which I can't even get myself to type, I wouldn't be surprised if "AK-47", the weapon that is most used by dictators and warlords around the world, affects how people feel about "AR-15".
And the third reason is the word "semiautomatic". And that actually goes right along with that AK-47 thing. Are people thinking about a weapon where, if you hold down the trigger, you spray bullets all over the place? Which, incidentally, the AK-47 actually is.
And, again, even if people know they are different, does the word "semiautomatic" make people think of "automatic", and pick up the emotional resonance?
Section 3. Why do people want to keep their AR-15s? What is the emotional connection to them?
But now, for the final section of what I'm thinking about.
What is the emotional resonance about keeping and bearing arms in the first place? Why do so many people feel such an emotional connection to the right to own weapons at all?
I have an idea about this, because it's part of how I feel.
Do you know why Sikhs are religiously required to have a knife on their person at all times? Some have a symbolic knife, or even a knife-shaped piece of jewelry, but, in generally, all Sikhs have some sort of nod toward this principle.
It's because a Sikh is expected to fight for what is right at all times. And the knife is a symbol of that.
Except, in some times and places, it's not a SYMBOL of that -- it has been a TOOL for that. The requirement to fight for what is right includes fighting physically when that's the only choice.
One of the duties that an adult has is to serve their community to the best of their ability. We are honor-bound to do what we can to help our friends and neighbors, and work together to protect and support each other.
One part of this is to help each other in times of danger.
As part of this, there are codes of honor which suggest that every adult who doesn't have a moral objection to doing so has the responsibility to be able to bear arms in defense of their community. And you might suggest that such people should do this by serving in the armed forces, and such people often do.
But there are people who believe that, even if one doesn't have the ability to serve in the military, because one has other duties to one's family and community that preclude it, that doesn't absolve them of the responsibility to be able to do that. Even if one believes that it will never, ever come to that.
A Sikh who wears a knife-shaped piece of jewelry doesn't actually expect to be able to protect someone from a mugger with it, but it symbolizes their duty to help people. But some Sikhs believe that, even if they never expect to use it, their honor requires them to have one that they at least theoretically COULD be able to do that with.
And other people who aren't Sikhs have the same opinion. They may never expect to have to use a weapon to defend themselves or their community. But they may feel that their code of honor requires them to have the capacity to do so.
I kind of feel that way, myself. If I ever do get around to getting a firearm, that is the reason I would do so. I don't ever expect to be in a situation where it would be useful, but I am not sure that absolves me of the responsibility to have the capacity.