Sorting Through Fact and Fiction Around the AR-15

It seems we’ve lost sight of the horrific damage this weapon does.

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is usually marked by family gatherings, barbecues, and pale skin soaking in the first rays of the season. But this past weekend I couldn’t stop thinking about the 19 children and 2 teachers who were massacred at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. What happened is so tragic: I woke up thinking about the children who bravely called 911, even though the shooter was in the room with them. The little girl who had to smear her friends’ blood all over her body de ella to play dead. The teacher to whom the gunman said, “Good night,” then shot her point blank.

And the shooter, who bought two AR-15s days after his 18th birthday, and used those weapons to kill 21 people and injure 17 others.

The AR-15 has become synonymous with mass shootings, and was used in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Parkland, among other horrific events. It occurred to me recently that we may have normalized assault weapons like the AR-15 so much in this country that we’ve actually forgotten how powerful they really are. In my 2016 documentary under the gun, Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center offered some essential perspective into what it actually means when someone like the Uvalde shooter walks onto school grounds in military-grade body gear, wielding an AR-15.

“[In this country] you can buy plates of body armor to protect yourself, and you can buy essentially the exact same gun that is used to penetrate military armor plating a mile away,” Sugarmann said. “The NRA is working hand in hand with the gun industry on this, and saying that civilians must go out and buy these guns before they’re banned. And this paranoid marketing has really defined the way they try and motivate buyers today.”

The AR-15 is such a powerful military-level weapon that frequently disfigures human bodies on the receiving end of its firepower. This was, tragically, the case with so many children who died in Uvalde. Their bodies were so unrecognizable from the force of the AR-15’s fire that parents actually had to provide DNA samples, so that their children could be identified.

I know this is horrible to think about. But I also believe it’s our duty to face this reality head-on. These weapons are legal in this country — and in many states, they’re not just legal, but incredibly easy to purchase. In Texas, where the Uvalde shooting took place, it’s actually easier to buy an AR-15 than it is to buy a handgun, bafflingly enough.

I think this country needs to have a reckoning when it comes to the use of these weapons. It’s essential that we debunk as many myths around the AR-15 and other military weapons as possible, so that we can move toward a world in which these weapons are hopefully banned — and if not banned, then highly regulated. No 18-year-old should be able to walk into a store and leave with a weapon that can kill dozens of people in a matter of minutes.

Earlier this week, I spoke with my good friend Robyn Thomas about this issue. Robyn is the executive director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and as an expert on gun violence and legislation, she has so much experience and insight on this topic. Read a condensed version of our conversation here, or watch the full interview in the video below.

Just about 20 years ago, there was an active assault weapon banned in the United States. That bill expired in 2004 and gun violence skyrocketed. Can you tell us about that time period, and why the bill expired?

In 1994, a federal assault weapon ban was passed during Bill Clinton’s presidency. One of the compromises that had to be made in order for it to pass was that a 10-year sunset provision was built into it. During that decade when assault weapons were banned, experts say mass shootings in this country were reduced by 43 percent. Then, in 2004, Republicans in Congress voted against extending the ban, and immediately after the ban expired, mass shootings went up by almost 250 percent.

So we have solid research proving that it worked — and frankly, it wasn’t even a perfect piece of legislation. It had a lot of loopholes in it. It allowed for lots of assault weapons to be grandfathered in. It didn’t completely ban those weapons, and still it made a massive difference.

I can’t stop thinking about the firepower of this particular weapon, which is grossly in terms of the velocity and the amount of damage it can inflict on any body, let alone a child’s body. But there are so many assault weapons in circulation in this country: Would it even be possible to decrease that number?

And it is. In Australia, after a deadly mass shooting left 35 people dead in 1996, the country passed a number of gun control laws and also instituted a huge gun buyback process. And there haven’t been any mass shootings in Australia ever since. I understand the reticence to be absolute about the correlation between gun laws and gun violence, but also, the data does not lie. The areas that have gun restrictions in place always have significantly lower rates of gun death. That’s just a fact.

One of the things that has been driving me crazy is that ridiculous argument about the “good guy with the gun stopping a bad guy with a gun.” Here’s a situation where you had plenty of law enforcement standing around outside the school in Uvalde, but the lethality of the weapon in that building was such that nobody wanted to be that good guy, not even the guys who were hired to do it as their job.

Here’s something else I’ve been thinking about: No hunter worth his or her salt would use a semiautomatic weapon while hunting. The only real argument against gun control is that it “infringes upon second amendment rights.” So what is the rationale for keeping these assault weapons readily available without any kind of background check, any kind of registration, any kind of waiting period?

It’s simple: The gun industry wants to sell more guns. They’re trying to persuade people that this is the gun you need in order to be safe. And it’s funny you bring up hunting, Katie, because these companies have even started referring to assault weapons as specialized sporting guns, which is insane, because it’s not something that true sportsmen and hunters would ever use.

Why does the average person end up thinking they want one? There are only two arguments I hear, and both of them make my skin crawl. One is that they’re really fun. I actually asked a gun owner friend this weekend why he owns an assault weapon. And he said, “It’s really fun to shoot it.”

The other argument is that it makes people feel safer and stronger to own a gun like that. For the record, it’s not a gun that can even be used for self-defense; there’s too much fire power to be shooting an assault weapon in your home. And you can’t even shoot it at a lot of shooting ranges. I asked another man why he liked having an assault weapon, and he said he hadn’t even used it yet because it was banned at his local shooting range.

The Uvalde school shooter bought not one but two AR-15s and more than 400 rounds of ammunition. He went to a gun store in the state of Texas shortly after his 18th birthday, and they just let him buy those guns and that much ammunition. No questions asked. Is this normal?

We don’t have restrictions on how many guns you can buy at once. We don’t have restrictions on what type of guns you can buy. As long as the AR-15 is legal in Texas, anyone can go and buy one, two, or three at eleven. Just like this young man did. Although you do at least have to pass a background check, if the gun shop is following the law.

It seems so unlikely that we’ll see another assault weapon ban in this country in the near future. But are there other policies we can consider that seem more possible?

There are plenty of other policies we can consider that would make a difference — and I want to note that there are a lot of other countries that have high private gun ownership rates and low or nonexistent rates of mass violence.

Those countries do not have the kind of shootings and deaths that we do because they have a robust, intelligent, research-based policy-making approach. For example, we could raise the minimum-age to buy weapons. We could have universal background checks. We could have safe storage laws, as well as child access prevention laws. We could monitor and regulate gun dealers more aggressively. I mean, there are so many steps we could take, I could name 50 more — but just starting with background checks, protective orders, and safe storage laws could make a massive difference. As plenty of people have noted in the last week, we don’t have a bigger mental health problem in this country than other countries, but we do have so many more guns, and there’s also such easy access to those guns.

I feel like some of these politicians in Congress are completely out to lunch when it comes to this topic. They’re either accidentally or willfully ignorant about what’s going on. Do you agree with that?

When we talk about assault weapon restrictions and bans, it makes sense logically. It’s just as logical that any society would support a basic federal law that requires someone to get a background check before they can buy a gun. And in 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan background check law, and over two years later, the Senate hasn’t even called it for a vote. It’s really amazing.

I personally testified in front of the Senate last March in support of this bill. I was ready to speak with Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham and other Republicans who are on the Senate Judiciary Committee. I was prepared to answer the hardest questions, to engage on the most complicated and difficult parts of this issue. And these are intelligent men who went to great schools, I’ll add. It wouldn’t be that hard for them to come after me with the hard stuff.

And you know what they asked me? Nothing. Don’t ask. And it was infuriating because it really seemed like they didn’t actually care about solving the problem. They don’t actually want to know what the research says or what the solutions are. They do grandstanding, and they go home, and meanwhile, kids are getting killed again and again, and these men are not even voting on legislation. Over 70 percent of NRA members agree with basic legislation like mandatory background checks, and still these politicians refuse to do anything about it.

What advice do you have for anyone who is as outraged as we are about the state of gun violence in this country?

If politicians think this is going to go away and that they don’t have to do anything, they’re not going to do anything. It’s really important that the pressure stays on them, and that people continue to pick up the phone and call these Senate offices. It makes a difference. Don’t be afraid to talk about this. Don’t be afraid to get out on the streets. These politicians do pay attention. So they have to know that we’re watching and paying attention and are outraged. This is especially important for people who live in the states of these Republican senators. If you live in a state with a Republican senator, you need to call every day, and tell them that this is important to you. Tell them it’s a voting issue. Tell them that you want to see them do something. It does move the needle for them. It matters.

By the way, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would start the process of an assault weapons ban and a buyback program. How many more mass shootings must occur before elected officials in our country take action too?

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