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America's AR-15 problem: Kyle Rittenhouse shooting has further highlighted nation's troubled history with the gun

The latest incident involving the 17-year-old Antioch boy has brought the focus back on the debate over the deadly AR-15 rifle
UPDATED AUG 27, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A 17-year-old boy has been arrested in Illinois on charges of murder after he allegedly shot two persons dead and injured another during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the death of Jacob Blake in police firing on Sunday, August 23. Kyle Rittenhouse, who is a supporter of the Blue Lives Matter movement and of President Donald Trump, was facing charges of first-degree intentional homicide, said Lake County, Illinois Clerk of Court's public records. The teenager from Antioch has been labeled as a “fugitive from justice” in the complaint which stated that he “fled the state of Wisconsin with intent to avoid prosecution for that offense”. He was assigned a public defender and was set to appear at an extradition hearing on Friday, August 28, as per the court records.

While Rittenhouse’s case has added fuel to the raging fire over police brutalities against people of color, it has also brought attention back on the rampant use of AR-15, the assault weapon that the teenager was carrying during his sinister mission. It has become a symbol of America’s violent gun culture and the country still has not found a way to stop it.

America’s troubled history with AR-15

Some of the US’s worst mass shootings have all featured versions of the AR-15 assault rifle. Calls for its ban have gone high with the Boston Globe calling it “mass shooters’ weapon of choice”. The New York Daily News called it a “mass murderer’s best friend”. The irony with the AR-15 menace is that while demand has soared to ban it, its sales has only got a boost and that has made it even harder to regulate its use, by any of the two major political parties.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has called the AR-15, which is a semi-automatic civilian version of the army’s M-16, as the “most popular rifle in America” and as per its estimates a few years ago, more than eight million Americans own them. It is very difficult for civilians to own the deadly M-16 which can shoot up to three bullets in one burst. The gun is strictly regulated by the National Firearms Act, a 1934 law that put a restriction on the possession of machine guns. The AR-15 is semi-automatic as one has to pull the trigger for each bullet and hence there is no such restriction.

The name AR-15 (AR stands for ArmaLite and not assault rifle) is trademarked by Colt firearms maker. But after the patent on the gun’s operating system ended, various other manufacturers started making their own versions of the rifle. Since 2009, gun-makers have preferred to label AR-15s “modern sporting rifles” but gun experts are of the viewpoint that the weapon, which is Chambered in 5.56 NATO or .223 Remington, is more effective in killing people than animals!

Why are AR-15s so popular in the US

According to the NRA, which has promoted the AR-15 as “America’s rifle”, its popularity has gone up because it’s “customizable, adaptable, reliable and accurate”. Many of the rifle’s components can be personalized and that adds to its appeal. It is also lightweight and has a low recoil which makes it even better to use. Those against gun violence have also conceded that AR-15s are indeed popular. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has also spoken about the weapon’s versatility while evaluating its popularity.

“They’re accurate and they can basically shoot as quickly as you can pull the trigger,” according to the campaign. "Along those lines, they’re very customizable — most average people can figure out how to install accessories like forward trigger grips that let you hold the gun at waist height and spray bullets while stabilizing the gun, laser sights, and you can add high-capacity magazines.” The gun’s ability to add a high-capacity magazine is one of the reasons that it is a top favorite for those who are planning mass murders. There are even “drums” holding as many as 100 rounds that are available for operating the gun.

It's a copy-cat mindset for shooters, feels expert

The USA TODAY cited Dean Hazen, owner of The Gun Experts in Mahomet, Illinois, and a prominent firearms instructor, in one of its reports in February 2018 to say that more than any of the features of the rifle, the shooters are turning to the AR-15 because of the “copy cat” mindset. “It’s really just a perception thing. There are rifles that are more powerful and more dangerous than that, but they're not being used,” Hazen told TODAY. According to him, since the gun has already earned a "good" name as a mass-murder weapon, shooters are blindly picking it up to accomplish their missions.

As Congress debated ban, AR-15 production rose

The federal assault weapons ban, which came into effect in 1994, banned the sale of AR-15-style guns and high-capacity magazines. But the results were the opposite. The more gun-owners feared that their weapons will be taken away, the more they wanted to own one. According to a 2004 report from the University of Pennsylvania, as the Congress debated a ban on assault weapons in 1993, their production only went up. Moreover, as the ban was on AR-15s, the manufacturers started making other weapons that looked pretty similar to the rifle. In California, gun manufacturers found ways to modify the AR-15 as the state also has an assault weapons ban. As calls for banning AR-15s continued after each mass shooting, gun defenders started saying that other weapons used in the killings weren’t AR-15 but had small technical differences.

‘Eugene Stoner would've been horrified today’

Eugene Stoner (1922-97), the creator of AR-15, could find himself in a position comparable to that of Victor Frankenstein. Stoner’s family said at the height of the gun violence debate in the wake of the mass killings in a nightclub in Orlando in June 2016 that he never intended to make the gun for civilian use and did not own one himself.

A protester holds American flags during a demonstration in favor of gun regulation outside of the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits at the George R Brown Convention Center on May 4, 2013, in Houston, Texas (Getty Images)

“Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47,” Stoner's family told NBC News. “He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events.” Stoner designed the gun in the late 1950s and it became an instant hit with the military. Later, its semi-automatic version became commercially popular. “What has happened, good or bad, since his patents have expired is a result of our free market system. Currently, a more interesting question is ‘Who now is benefiting from the manufacturing and sales of AR-15s, and for what uses?’” Stoner’s family has asked. 

Mass shootings with AR-15s or guns similar to them:

February 14, 2018: Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15-style weapon to kill at least 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Erica Smegielski, daughter of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung of Sandy Hook Elementary School, is comforted by US Sen Christopher Murphy (D-CT) after votes on gun control at the Capitol June 20, 2016, in Washington, DC. The Senate failed to pass four competing amendments on gun control just a week after the nation's worst mass shooting in modern history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida (Getty Images)

November 5, 2017: Twenty-six-year-old Devin Kelley used an AR-15 style Ruger rifle to kill 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen, 29, used a Sig Sauer MCX (AR-15-style rifle) and a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol to kill 49 people and injure another 50 at an Orlando nightclub.

October 1, 2017: Stephen Paddock, 64, used guns, including an AR-15, to kill 58 people and injure hundreds at a music festival in Las Vegas.

December 2, 2015: Syed Rizwyan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in their late-20s used two AR-15-style, .223-caliber Remington rifles and two 9mm handguns, to kill 14 and injure 21 at a workplace in San Bernardino, California.