In the media, and to a lesser extent in the country at large, the AR-15 rifle serves as a totem and a fetish. It is the gun whose name everybody knows; the stuff of nightmares and of fantasies; perhaps the most loved and most hated object in a country of plenty. And, all told, that’s really quite silly.
So sure were the horrified darlings of the gun-control salon that an AR-15 had played a part in the abomination at Navy Yard that many felt compelled to insert one into the story, front and center. At various points in the cycle, we were told that Aaron Alexis: took an AR-15 to the Navy Yard as his primary weapon; didn’t take one to the Navy Yard but stole one from a cop once inside; or didn’t use one at all, but tried to buy one in Virginia and was rebuffed by the law.
Eventually, it was made clear that the AR-15 had played no part at all in Monday’s events — but not until Piers Morgan had dedicated the better part of his show on Tuesday to railing against the weapon, Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert had gleefully written, “bottom line: another AR-15 mass shooting” on Twitter, and the New York Daily News’s Mike Lupica had rather embarrassingly dedicated a cover story to the weapon, which he characterized with typical hysteria as the “rifle for the ‘sport’ of hunting humans.” Wishcasting in public that a firearm you dislike has been used to murder people is not a good look.
Still, while the focus on the AR-15 is distressingly overblown, it is not entirely irrational, for at one level both its critics and its champions are motivated by the same thing. The pro-gun side loves it because it is a commercially available, easy-to-use, well-built “tactical” weapon that looks like a “military style” machine gun; conversely, the other side hates it because it is a commercially available, easy-to-use, well-built “tactical” weapon that looks like a “military style” machine gun. To its fans, it is the emblem of a liberty-obsessed people and a reminder that the citizenry is sovereign and may choose for itself how to manage its defense; to its critics, it is the sign of a liberty-obsessed people, and a reminder that the citizenry is sovereign and may choose for itself how to manage its defense.
In his novel Zero History, William Gibson hints at what I believe to be a truth about masculinity and firearms, describing the “traditional army-navy store” as containing “whole universes of wistful male fantasy.” Men do not wish to be soldiers, per se, Gibson notes, but on one level many do wish “to self-identify as” soldiers, “however secretly.” That is to say that they wish “to imagine they may be mistaken for, or at least associated with” soldiers. Never mind, he argues, that “virtually none of [such a shop’s] products will ever be used for anything remotely like what they were designed for.”
In my view, this soldierly instinct is a noble one, and it suits well a people that were explicitly not required or expected to give up their basic rights as a condition of entering the regnant social compact. Insofar as the Second Amendment has to do with the militia at all, it exists primarily to codify and to protect the crucial space that exists between civil society and the force of government, and to entrench a citizen-led protection that was, Madison himself acknowledged in The Federalist papers, a last line of defense against a standing army. The right to keep and bear arms, the Philadelphia Gazette confirmed in its 1791 explanation of the proposed Bill of Rights, is included to ensure that, if doing so became as tragically necessary as it had been for the Founders, the people could protect themselves against “civil rulers” who “may attempt to tyrannize” them and from “military forces” that “might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens.”
In almost every single case, it should be stressed, conservatives have no desire whatsoever actually to exercise this power. But they nonetheless remain willing to do so if imperative, and they steadfastly refuse to be stripped of the means by which they might defend themselves. This is to say that, to them, the concept of the “militia” is akin to the concept of calling citizens to perform jury service, as opposed to, say, having official and monopolistic professional judges. As the existence of judges does not negate the need for juries, so the existence of the police and the military does not negate the need for a prepared citizenry.
This, as it happens, is precisely the same reason that the Left dislikes anything that smells of — or looks like — amateur militarism. To progressives, the very idea of a citizenry that is armed so that it might protect itself is nothing short of a dangerous Red Dawn fantasy — a recipe for “anarchy” or “vigilantism,” and a serving of unlovely catnip to an “insurrectionist” movement (which never quite materializes but is always lurking). For their part, progressives do not believe that it is constitutionally and philosophically irrational for the representatives of a free people to be able to disarm them, because History always moves forward and we have outgrown all that. Instead, they believe that it is the job of the government to institute what it considers to be reasonable restrictions on weaponry in order to protect the people from themselves and from others. In this view, only the police and the military should have “serious” weapons, and the people should submit to their protection. Anything that even hints at military weaponry should, therefore, not be in the hands of the people. And, quite deliberately, the AR-15 looks like a military weapon.
Nevertheless, one should never judge a firearm by its cover. The AR-15 is not a military weapon, and the dogged insistence of ill-informed politicians and journalists that it is one renders them simultaneously comical, irritating, and ineffective. For some reason, progressives remain proudly and profoundly ignorant on the subject of firearms, and consequently tend to mistake form for function. Take a look down the lists of prohibited “assault weapons” that obtain in certain parts of the country and you will notice that they are almost exclusively populated by weapons that look, rather than are, scary, and that the variables that determine what is and is not legal are usually informed by features that are solely aesthetic.
And this is the thing: For all the hype, an AR-15 is really just a glorified .223 rifle. It is not a “machine gun;” it is not “automatic”; it does not “spray bullets”; it is not a “weapon of war.” Indeed, it is not functionally any different from a host of other, similar, guns that are not black. It is much, much less powerful than are almost all hunting rifles. (If you don’t believe me, try going hunting with one.)
The AR-15 is not a luxury item, either. In fact, it is the most popular rifle in the country. Why? Because ammunition for it is easy to come by, because it is customizable at purchase, and because it is modular, which means that one can add and remove parts to suit one’s needs. It is light enough for women to carry, but heavy enough to feel comfortable and steady in the hands of the average person. And it is not especially powerful.
This, perhaps, is why it is used in so few crimes. Rifles — not just AR-15s or other scary-looking long-guns, but all rifles — are used in under 3 percent of the gun deaths in the United States. Indeed so rare is it that a rifle is used in the commission of a crime that the FBI reports that hands and fists are more than two times more likely to be used as murder weapons. A savvy criminal wishing to do maximum damage in an enclosed space will not turn to an AR-15, but to a much more lethal (and intimidating) shotgun. And this, of course, is exactly what Aaron Alexis, a Navy veteran, did to such lethal effect in Washington on Monday.
Ironically enough, the cosmetic additions with which the Left is obsessed and which the Right correctly dismisses as being immaterial to the weapon’s power probably help to explain why the AR-15 is used so rarely in the commission of crimes but used so frequently in mass-shootings. Generally, mass-shooters seem to be living out some sort of fantasy: Perhaps this fantasy is based on the movies, in which the majority of heroes’ weapons look like AR-15s; perhaps this fantasy is based on a video game, in which black, modifiable guns predominate; perhaps this fantasy is based on warfare, in which the AR-15’s professional (automatic) siblings, the M4 and M16, are commonplace. Whatever it is, the AR-15 looks like a fantasy gun — it is unsurprising that fantasists choose it.
Aesthetically, then, the obsession with the AR-15 is just about understandable. But from the perspective of public policy, it is unforgivable. It is a curiosity that each and every time that Barack Obama or Joe Biden have spoken in favor of expanded gun-control, they have assured the audience that they have no intention of touching sportsmen’s gear. “We recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation, that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage,” Obama told a crowd in New Orleans after the massacre in Aurora, Colo. In Virginia in 2008, Joe Biden had put this more bluntly. “I guarantee you Barack Obama ain’t taking my shotguns,” Biden said. “So don’t buy that malarkey.”
This, as ever, is welcome news. And yet, given that shotguns are, both statistically and technically, significantly more dangerous than the AR-15, and that Aaron Alexis used a lethal Remington 870, the most commonly owned shotgun in the United States, one has to wonder why . . .
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.