The assault rifle, America's most popular gun, has become the preferred instrument for mass murder. Here's everything you need to know:
What defines an assault rifle?
Assault rifles, often called AR-15-style weapons, have been used in many mass shootings, including the recent massacre of 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket and the slaughter of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. These weapons are identifiable by three features: They're semiautomatic, meaning they can be repeatedly fired with the squeeze of the trigger; they have detachable magazines for easy reloading; and they have components, such as a pistol grip, that allow shooters to fire continuously with their rifle trained on the target. The AR-15 is the civilian counterpart of the U.S. military's M16, which has a shorter barrel and can fire three-round bursts with one pull of the trigger. These marvels of engineering are stunningly efficient and easy to use, earning the title "America's Rifle" from the National Rifle Association and the nickname the "iPhone of firearms."
Why the term AR-15?
AR-15 was originally named for the gunmaker ArmaLite and trademarked by Colt after it bought the manufacturing rights to the weapon. But the patent is long expired, and about 500 gunmakers sell similarly designed weapons. There were about 400,000 assault weapons in circulation when a federal ban on them was passed in 1994, but sales exploded when the law expired a decade later. Today, there are about 20 million AR-15s in the U.S. One in five gun purchases is now an assault weapon.
How deadly are they?
The AR-15 was engineered to cause "maximum wound effect," as one of its designers put it. It fires needle-nosed bullets that travel three times faster than handgun rounds and fragment when slamming into flesh, causing enormous damage. Features such as second-hand grips and thumb-hole stocks make the weapon easy to aim and hold with both hands while firing dozens of rounds with little recoil. "It's the perfect killing machine," says Dr. Peter Rhee, a former Navy trauma surgeon. A study of mass shootings from 2000 to 2017 found that killers who used assault rifles caused 97 percent more deaths and wounded 81 percent more victims than those who used handguns.
How did assault rifles originate?
Adolf Hitler coined the term Sturmgewehr — "storm weapon" — to describe a new gun with a shorter barrel than the standard Nazi rifle, making it easier to control because it kicked less. The Soviets followed with the AK-47. When American troops encountered Viet Cong troops armed with AKs, they decided to go against conventional military thinking and try the new, American-made AR-15, which used unusually light .223 caliber rounds (the same caliber used by the Uvalde shooter). The results were astonishing. The AR-15 mutilated enemy soldiers, leaving many looking as though they had simply "exploded," a military report said.
What makes them so lethal?
Unlike a heavier handgun bullet, which punctures the body like a nail, a high-velocity round from an AR-15 delivers a payload of kinetic energy that radiates outward from the wound, obliterating organs, pulverizing bones, and causing massive bleeding. It can leave a jagged exit wound the diameter of a soda can. When radiologist Heather Sher examined a teenage victim of the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, she says she found that one organ looked like "an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer." The victim could not be saved. After the Uvalde shooting, DNA samples were needed to help identify victims, many of whom were left unrecognizable by horrific wounds.
How are assault rifles marketed?
Gunmakers call the AR-15 a "modern sporting rifle," and its fans insist it just has cosmetic differences from other semiautomatic long guns. But marketing strategies have grown increasingly unsubtle. After the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, commercial AR-15s began appearing in the same desert tan used on the battlefield. Advertisements for Daniel Defense, which sold the weapon used by the Uvalde shooter, show images of U.S. troops with the slogan "Use what they use." Appeals to masculine insecurity are common, such as a Bushmaster ad for the rifle that said "Consider your man card reissued." Gunmakers increasingly advertise their weapons as necessary tools if and when the U.S. descends into anarchy or tyranny. The NRA's magazine advised that a 5-year-old boy could fire an AR if taught the "two-finger trigger-pull method."
Would restrictions be effective?
That's the subject of fierce debate, with gun enthusiasts arguing that restrictions can be circumvented by determined criminals. Still, a 2019 Columbia University study found that banning large-capacity magazines resulted in a 206 percent drop in the fatality rate of gun massacres. One inescapable irony is that any time there is renewed discussion of banning assault weapons, it triggers a boom in gun sales. In fact, says Josh Koskoff, an attorney who represented victims' families after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, gunmakers know mass shootings help sell more assault weapons. "They cashed in on that imagery," he said. "And muscularity. And violence."
The assault weapon's role in massacres
For years, semiautomatic handguns were the preferred weapon of mass shooters. But assault rifles have emerged over the past decade as the weapon of choice, and large-capacity magazines ranging from 30 to 100 rounds enable gunmen to increase their kill count without having to pause to reload. Adam Lanza attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with a Bushmaster assault weapon, firing 154 rounds in 264 seconds. James Holmes opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012 armed with Smith & Wesson's "Military & Police" AR-15 outfitted with a 100-round drum magazine, killing 12 people and wounding 58 as he fired roughly 240 rounds. Omar Mateen stormed Orlando's Pulse nightclub in 2016 armed with Sig Sauer's "next-generation" AR-15, firing about 200 rounds as he murdered 49 people and injured dozens more. Stephen Paddock fired more than 1,000 rounds from his Las Vegas hotel room in 2017, killing 60 people and wounding 411. Assault weapons, a New York University School of Medicine study found, accounted for 85 percent of mass-shooting deaths from 1981 to 2017.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here