I am a gun owner. I grew up hunting and target shooting and am now an officer in the U.S. Army. I am comfortable with responsible gun ownership.
But I am also a father, and my heart aches at the sight of white crosses memorializing dead children.
Gun owners have a responsibility to help develop and support policies that manage access to guns not only in their own homes but in society as well, because to talk of the right to bear arms without advocating for the responsible exercise of those rights is irresponsible citizenship indeed.
A logical place to start this conversation of responsible rights is with the AR-15 rifle.
Let’s be honest: the AR-15 is only optimal as a military weapon. The weapon is rugged, holds a lot of ammunition and is easy to maintain in working condition.
War is a unique environment that requires a weapon with those characteristics, but do private citizens ever find themselves in such an environment?
Without some modification, an AR-15 is not especially accurate. It can be used for hunting, but it is not especially adapted for that purpose.
The 5.56mm, by far the most common round for the AR-15, isn’t especially great for home defense, either; nearly two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests there are better calibers for stopping assailants.
The remaining characteristic of the AR-15 is magazine capacity – those available can hold from five to 100 or more rounds. However most defensive shooting situations, where private citizens discharge a firearm, average four or fewer rounds fired.
Recent history shows the only situations where the AR-15’s ammunition capacity is put to use are war, police standoffs and mass shootings. So why would the gun-owning community not favor place stricter controls on the sale and possession of the AR-15 and other high-capacity semi-automatic rifles?
Sadly, it is because the AR-15 has become a fetish object within the gun-owning community. It is valued more as a symbol of the private citizen’s right to bear arms and less because of its usefulness as a tool of personal protection or outdoor pursuits such as hunting.
The fetishizing of the AR-15 derives from the fact that they were once banned under Title XI, the “Assault Weapons Ban,” of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The 1994 “ban” was not renewed in 2004, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives data suggest that in the decade following the ban, the number of AR-15s manufactured in America rose from 100,000 to more than 1 million each year. The end of the assault weapons ban symbolized a reclaimed right, and AR-15 ownership came to embody this reclaimed right.
Groups such as the NRA make a case that the AR-15 is used mostly in legal ways by responsible gun owners. Referring to the AR-15 as a “modern sporting rifle,” they rebrand the gun in ways that aren’t military-related. And most AR-15s are used in legal ways.
But one should remember that the idea of using the AR-15 for hunting or competition shooting became popular after the end of the assault weapons ban, once greater numbers of people owned AR-15s, not before. The narrative that the AR-15 is an optimal tool for anything beyond combat is a fabrication of the gun industry.
This returns us to the idea that rights must come with responsibility. Perhaps gun owners should focus on the “well-regulated” clause within the Second Amendment as much as they focus on “shall not be infringed.” More gun owners should support common sense regulation of guns; to do so would be a display of the responsible exercise of rights. Because the AR-15 is valued for its symbolism more than its usefulness, it is uniquely suited for stricter regulation.
Finally, if gun owners do not give a little, they will have to give a lot when this current generation, which has grown up in the midst of mass violence, gains the power of the ballot. Perhaps meaningful legislation is unlikely in the short term, but the only thing worse than incremental change is no change at all. If we do not come together on this, sadly, I fear there are more white crosses in our children’s future.
JD Swinney is a third-year graduate student in history at Duke University, a major in the U.S. Army, and a fellow with the U.S. Army’s Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program.