Even to those unfamiliar with firearms, the AR-15 rifle looks like it means serious business. One look at this weapon and its imposing visual aspect tells you that this is not your typical rifle — or is it? Is it possible that beneath its intimidating, high-tech exterior, the AR-15 is no different from any of the thousands of other rifles that make up the more than 300 million firearms in America?
In order to answer this question, let us take a closer look at the controversial and much-maligned AR-15.
The AR-15 belongs to a class of semiautomatic firearms, chambered for a high-powered rifle cartridge, and can be fed its ammunition from a high-capacity magazine. The AR-15 is the civilian version of the M-16 rifle used by U.S. military forces. Although the AR-15 and similar weapons are officially referred to as “sporting rifles” by the gun industry, they are often colloquially called assault rifles.
Both rifles share many similarities, even down to the caliber of ammunition they fire. The military M-16 and its shorter cousin, the M-4 carbine, are chambered for the 5.56mm NATO cartridge. The AR-15 and CAR-15 analogs typically accept the readily-available over-the-counter.223 caliber.
In fact, the ammunition is so similar that some shooters use it interchangeably. However, the main difference between the two rifles is the military version has automatic firing capability and the civilian version does not.
In spite of the obvious resemblance to a military weapon of war, the biggest controversy over the AR-15 is its ability to fire hundreds of rounds per minute when used with high-capacity magazines. Some of these magazines can hold up to 100 rounds, allowing a shooter access to a huge amount of firepower.
There is also concern about the bullets themselves, which combine a lightweight round with a high-powered projectile charge. The 5.56mm NATO/.223 is designed for maximum damage to tissue and organs. Traveling at more than 3,000 feet per second, the lightweight, high-velocity bullet can fragment after entry into a victim. These fragments can then literally shred internal organs and cause massive trauma to bone and other soft tissue.
Although there is debate over its effectiveness as a hunting round, the civilian.223 is marketed as a so-called “varmint” round and for home protection. The properties of the round make it mostly unsuitable for large animals because extreme accuracy is required to guarantee a one-shot kill. Conversely, the same properties that make it unsuitable for big game make the round perfect for incapacitating people.
This is one of the reasons why the 5.56mm NATO/.223 has been the choice of the U.S. military for several decades. Its light weight allows soldiers to carry more ammunition, and its ability to cause severe, agonizing, and massive internal injuries have made it one of the most lethal and feared rounds in modern warfare.
There is also a consensus, at least among medical professionals, about the AR-15’s incapacitation capabilities. Doctors who have treated victims of the AR-15 and its high-velocity bullets all have a very similar depiction of the carnage it inflicts on a human body.
Doctors who treated victims after the Sandy Hook school shooting and other mass shooting incidents described the horrible damage done to the bodies of the deceased by these weapons.
Peter Rhee, a trauma surgeon at the University of Arizona, told Vox that a wound from a typical 9mm handgun looks like a “bad knife cut,” whereas a wound from an AR-15 rifle looks like a “grenade went off” inside of it.
Donald Jenkins, a trauma surgeon at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, graphically described what happens when an AR-15 round strikes bone or an internal organ, like the liver.
“It [the bullet] would just turn it [bone] to dust, [and] if it hits the liver, the liver looks like a jello mold that’s been dropped on the floor. And the exit wound can be a nasty, jagged hole the size of an orange.”
Conversely, despite the horrific descriptions of the damage done by these weapons, gun advocates correctly argue that it is not the weapon’s fault alone, but those who end up using them on others. Most gun advocates agree to tougher background checks and steps to prevent the mentally unstable from possessing firearms, but gun opponents say that this is simply not enough.
Opponents of these measures say they will do little or no good because most of those who were responsible for America’s largest mass shootings did not have criminal records or had been determined to be mentally unstable.
Gun opponents also point out that the mass shootings with the highest number of casualties were those where the gunmen used AR-15-type rifles.
Stephen Paddock, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Devin Patrick Kelley, and Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, all allegedly used this type of weapon.
Between these five gunmen, more than 500 people were killed or wounded. All passed background checks and none had been judged mentally incompetent by a court.