Line of Fire

To some, the AR-15 is a symbol of American freedom. To others, it's a weapon of mass destruction.

Jan 30, 2013 at 10:06 am

Black gunmetal strikes coarse against the skin. With its stout and angular design, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle hangs light in the hands. Shadows catch along the sharp edges of the gun's frame.

Cold and unvarnished, the rifle reflects a ruthless efficiency. Cradle the weapon against one arm. With another hand, click the curved magazine into the underside of the gun. 

To load a bullet, draw back the lever. Let it slam forward with a heavy click-clack. Sight down the long, dark barrel. Breathe in. Breathe out. 

Squeeze the trigger. 

A .223-caliber bullet explodes from the muzzle at more than 3,200 feet-per-second. The rifle jerks, recoiling lightly into the shoulder. 

Whether punching a small hole in a paper target or committing mass murder, the rifle works the same. As the weapon of choice for society’s guardians, sports shooters and madmen, the AR-15 rifle occupies a fearsome place in American culture. 

Overwhelmingly outselling all other rifles, the AR-15 and its many modern facsimiles have flooded gun markets and reshaped the national firearms industry. Experts now estimate more than 3.5 million

AR-15-style rifles exist in circulation.

But every characteristic driving the rifle’s popularity among soldiers and sportsmen — high accuracy, reliability and versatility — also made it a terrifying killing machine in the hands of recent mass murderers in Newtown, Conn., Clackamas, Ore., and Aurora, Colo.

In the weeks since the Newtown shooting, familiar battle lines have emerged on television and Capitol Hill. Fox News fuels fear of overreaching gun control while Jon Stewart brandishes a plastic machine gun on The Daily Show. Heavily armed survivalists decry a new wave of tyranny. Peaceniks tout sensationalized body counts. Extreme voices drown out moderate discussion. 

The legacy

More than 50 U.S. companies now manufacture complete rifles or accessories for AR-15-style weapons. Commonly called “assault rifles” by gun control advocates and more recently rebranded as “modern sporting rifles” by shooting groups, the gun has several defining features. 

All legal AR-15 rifles must be semiautomatic, firing once for each trigger pull. A detachable magazine clips in under the weapon to feed bullets into the gun. Magazines come in a wide range of capacities from five bullets to 100-round drums. 

Part of the popularity of the rifle stems from its versatility. Barrel sizes and calibers can be changed easily. Many rifles also include rail mounts for attaching scopes, lights, lasers, slings or other accessories.

In 1954, small arms engineer Eugene Stoner dreamed of redefining the U.S. military rifle. Once a Marine in World War II, Stoner later served as chief engineer for ArmaLite, a fledgling firearm division under the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. His patents would lay the foundation for the next generation of weaponry. 

“ArmaLite believed that a ready market existed for firearms of advanced design featuring lightweight, modern alloys and plastics and economical production procedures,” the company history


Stoner, along with two other designers, first engineered the AR-5, a small survival rifle, out of aircraft aluminum. The company later adapted the design into a larger, .308-caliber infantry rifle called the AR-10. 

The U.S. Army did not adopt the AR-10, but asked ArmaLite to develop a third rifle that would fire a smaller round with greater speed and reliability, the company states. After specifically developing the .223-caliber bullet to meet the military’s ballistic requirements, ArmaLite introduced the AR-15 rifle. 

In his book The Gun, journalist C.J. Chivers says that the AR-15 benefitted from well-timed hype and an American military desperate to find a lightweight machine gun capable of taking on the AK-47 in the jungles of Vietnam. 

“Its appearance — small, dark, lean and synthetically futuristic — stirred emotions. A rifle, after all, was supposed to look like a rifle,” Chivers writes. “To its champions, the AR-15 was an embodiment of fresh thinking. Critics saw an ugly little toy.”

While the AR-15 received some positive feedback, ArmaLite’s financial limitations forced them to sell the design to the Colt’s Manufacturing firearm company in 1959. Colt later won the military contracts and the rifle’s fully automatic counterpart, the M-16, was issued into combat. 

After five decades of civilian and military success, Colt still controls the official “AR-15” trademark, so named AR for ArmaLite. In the years since, the rifle’s legacy has continued to grow, inspiring scores of imitation rifles based on Stoner’s initial platform. 

Legislator Reactions

In the weeks since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 young children and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., much of the national conversation has focused on gun violence. Proposed solutions have ranged from arming teachers to reinstating the previous federal ban on AR-15s and other semiautomatic assault weapons. 

Connecticut shooter Adam Lanza reportedly used an AR-15-style Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle in the Newtown shooting. Mass shooters also used similar rifles in the Dec. 10 killing of two people at the Clackamas Town Center south of Portland, Ore., along with the killing of 12 people at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20. 

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who sponsored the 1994 assault weapons ban, has written a new, further-reaching ban

she hopes to pass at the federal level. The preliminary bill would outlaw more than 100 AR-15 and other assault-type rifles by name along with any firearms with certain military features. Her proposed bill, along with several other ones under consideration, would also ban “high-capacity” ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

“As I have said many times before — and now repeat in the wake of yet another tragedy — weapons of war don’t belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools,” Feinstein said in a statement. “I hope and trust that in the next session of Congress there will be sustained and thoughtful debate about America’s gun culture and our responsibility to prevent more loss of life.”

Following an investigation led by Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama called for a ban on “military-style” assault weapons, including the AR-15, and universal background checks on all gun buyers — closing a loophole that allows anyone buy a firearm at a gun show without any background checks.

But as someone supportive of gun rights, Ohio Gov. John Kasich seems interested in an approach that boosts mental health services instead of gun regulations.

In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, Kasich used funding from the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program to establish a $5 million mental health intervention program. The funding helps mental health and developmental disabilities agencies better handle situations in which children and young adults become violent threats.

In contrast, Kasich has extended gun rights for Ohioans while in office. On Jan. 13, Kasich signed a law that allows guns in the Ohio Statehouse parking garage, changes the definition of an unloaded gun so gun owners can carry loaded clips in their vehicles and makes concealed carry permits from other states easier to validate in Ohio.

In 2011, Kasich also signed a law that allows gun owners in the state to carry concealed weapons into bars and other places where alcohol is served. But even that law kept some limits: Businesses can still ban guns on their premises, and gun carriers are not allowed to consume alcohol or be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs while carrying a gun into a bar.  

Still, local mental health services have actually lost funding in the past year. During 2013 budget talks, the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners refused to raise property taxes by $5 for every $100,000 of property value to match historical rates of funding. The move effectively cut county mental health services by $17 million, from $187 million to $170 million, according to Board President Greg Hartmann.

Loveland's gun-range dilemma

Nobody’s debating the AR-15’s merits in Loveland, specifically, but the Sandy Hook shootings have contributed to a newfound concern over guns in this typically conservative community. Residents recently took exception to a proposed indoor gun range across the street from Loveland Elementary School. 

Loveland voters have twice approved referendums paving the way for an indoor shooting range within city limits, both times after considerable debate. Then last fall, resident Steve Ling contacted Loveland City Council staff to learn about the zoning requirements for opening a range. By December he was close to locking up financing for the former Loveland Tool Rental building, located in a strip mall on Loveland-Madeira Road, just a couple hundred feet from the school’s playground.

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., happened Dec. 14, a week after City Council learned that the shooting range was likely to move in across from the school. 

Scott Russ is one of the numerous residents who contacted City Council with concerns. Russ told CityBeat he is not anti-Second Amendment or anti-gun, but that the range’s proximity to the school, several restaurants and a grocery store concerned locals. 

“We’re not opposed to guns or gun range in Loveland,” Russ says. “We just don’t think that’s the wisest choice as far as putting it that close to a school.” 

Even though the shooting range is a permitted use under the city’s zoning code, the city is moving toward placing a moratorium on issuing new permits while it works with Ling to find a more suitable location. An attempt to pass a 180-day moratorium on new permits failed at a Jan. 8 City Council meeting, during which council members took steps toward opening new zoning districts to allow a shooting range in another location, hoping that Ling would agree to open the range somewhere else. 

Russ would have preferred the 180-day moratorium to pass, but he’s OK with the range opening elsewhere. He envisions the gun range being somewhere out of public view like Pure Romance, a company that distributes sex toys and other intimacy aids via women-hosted, in-home parties. Pure Romance is located in Commerce Park, a light industrial area in the northwest corner of the city that houses a number of warehouses and other businesses. 

“What I don’t want is people coming from outside of Loveland bringing their weapons with the intent of firing them in a range in the heart of Loveland,” Russ says.  

Further, Russ doesn’t buy the notion that a school near a gun range is safer from violence because armed citizens are nearby. 

“That’s putting a lot of faith in people that have guns,” Russ says. 

“Until we figure out how to keep the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, I just don’t want to see a gun culture created in Loveland.”

City Manager Tom Carroll says that although the 180-day moratorium failed, there is support among council members for a 45-day ban, which he says will likely be passed once enough members are available to have a vote. Two council members are currently out of town for personal or business reasons. 

The city says staff is working with Ling to find an alternate location, and Carroll is confident the situation will be worked out that way. 

Loveland’s Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing on the issue Feb. 5 and could change the zoning code to allow the range in another location soon afterward.

NRA vs. the Brady Campaign

The National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun rights organization and political lobby, has led a full-throated defense of AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons. In a highly publicized news conference

a week after the Newtown shooting, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre accused the media of reporting misinformation and deliberating “demonizing” the rifle.

“The media call semiautomatic firearms ‘machine guns’ — they claim these civilian semiautomatic firearms are used by the military, and they tell us that the .223 round is one of the most powerful rifle calibers when all of these claims are factually untrue. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” 

LaPierre blamed media violence and “gun-free zones” for emboldening killers and argued for armed security guards in all schools. He stuck to a simple message: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 

The NRA reports more than 100,000 new members have joined the organization since the Newtown shooting.

The FBI has also seen a significant increase

 in the number of background checks being filed for new firearm purchases. In Ohio, demand rose from 74,534 checks in November to 102,531 checks in December.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has responded with increased calls for the prohibition of AR-15 and other semiautomatic rifles. Gun control advocates believe the Newtown shooting may be a “tipping point” in the debate on gun regulation. 

“The Brady Campaign supports banning military-style semiautomatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines,” the Brady Campaign website states. “These dangerous weapons have no sporting or civilian use. Their combat features are appropriate to military, not civilian contexts.”

More than 197,000 people signed an online “We the People” petition to the White House demanding “immediate” action on gun control. The number of supporters surpassed any previous petition totals for the website. 

The business of militarization

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a large firearms industry trade association coincidentally headquartered in Newtown, Conn., has long championed the competitive and hunting uses of AR-15s. In 2010, the federation produced an online survey of more than 7,300 owners of what they prefer to call “modern sporting rifles,” or MSRs, to illustrate who owns the rifles and what they want in a product. 

While the questions were self-reported and skewed to more frequent firearm website visitors, the federation released an 83-page report

on who owns these weapons. They concluded the average owner is older than 35 and married with some college education.

“The top reasons why consumers own a [modern sporting rifle] are; recreational target shooting, home defense, collecting and hunting,” the report states. “Overall, approximately 99 percent of all MSR owners owned some type of firearm prior to their first MSR purchase.”

The federation report also highlighted the rifle’s popularity among current and former members of the military and law enforcement. They concluded about 44 percent of AR-15-style rifle owners had some experience with law enforcement or the military. 

In a separate 2012 report

, the federation estimated the firearms industry contributes an annual impact of $31.8 billion in national economic activity. Nearly 210,000 jobs hinge directly or indirectly on the gun and ammunition sales.

“During difficult economic times and high unemployment rates nationally, our industry has grown and created over 26,325 new, well-paying jobs over the past two years,” the report states. “Our industry is proud to be one of the bright spots in this economy.”

The report listed 5,950 jobs in Ohio with about $255 million in wages and approximately $800 million in total economic impact. Kentucky had 1,926 jobs with more than $86 million in wages and nearly $300 million in total impact. 

A critical 2011 study on the U.S. firearms industry from the Violence Policy Center argues gun makers have resorted to militarizing civilian firearms to drum up sales in a declining market. The report suggests gun advertising and product development has focused on “tactical” weapons in recent years to invoke fear or take advantage of military themes such as honor or patriotism. 

“In short, the gun industry designs, manufactures, imports and sells firearms in the civilian market that are [for] all intents and purposes the same as military arms,” the report states. “It then bombards its target market with the message that civilian consumers — just like real soldiers — can easily and legally own the firepower of militarized weapons.”

With baby boomers aging out of the market and younger generations growing up without a tradition of gun ownership, the center’s report argues gun manufacturers have used military imagery to drive up sales. The report includes several civilian rifle advertisements featuring police officers, soldiers or military spokespersons. 

“In spite of the gauzy imagery of its advertising, the gun industry’s militarization is simply a business strategy aimed at survival: boosting sales and improving the bottom line,” the report states. “The hard commercial fact is that military-style weapons sell in an increasingly narrowly focused civilian gun market. True sporting guns do not.”

Did the ban work?

Nobody really thinks the 1994 assault weapons ban worked. Both sides of the gun debate acknowledge the ban had multiple holes that left gun regulations largely unchanged and undermined any potential impact on gun violence.

Eighteen specific models, including Colt’s AR-15 rifle, got named in the ban. Other weapons had to pass a combat-feature test that applied to any semiautomatic rifle with a detachable magazine. Those weapons could not have more than one of the following five features: a pistol grip, a threaded muzzle for a suppressor, a bayonet mount, a collapsable stock or a grenade launcher mount. 

Manufacturers simply dropped those small cosmetic features and returned to producing rifles. The ban also outlawed “high-capacity” magazines holding more than 10 rounds, but all rifles and magazines produced before the ban were grandfathered in as legal. 

When the ban expired in 2004, the Department of Justice released a report that found little impact on gun crime. While it noted just 2 percent of crime, even before the ban, was committed with assault weapons, it concluded loopholes and grandfathered stock piles had continued to supply demand for such weapons throughout the decade. 

Newly proposed assault weapon bans would likely incorporate stricter standards, but it’s too early to tell what a future ban, if even politically feasible, would look like in the end.

This story first appeared in The Pacific Northwest Inlander. Danny Cross and German Lopez contributed to this version.