The AR-15: ‘America’s rifle’ or killer weapon?
Anthony Ogline calls it America's rifle: the AR-15.
“It's the most popular sporting arm that's ever been produced,” said Ogline, president of Verona Gun Safe, which sells an array of firearms. “A massive amount of these are out there, and there's a reason for its popularity.”
He's far from alone in declaring his love for the gun. Americans own 10 million AR-15 rifles, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Gun enthusiasts like that it's customizable with lots of accessories, easy to build, lightweight and easy to handle. Most gun manufacturers produce some version of an AR-15.
“Honestly, they are adult Legos,” Ogline said. “They're so easy to customize and put together yourself; that's definitely part of the appeal.”
They're easily modified with sights, grips, suppressors and other accessories.
But a culture clash over the style of the rifle stems from its use in deadly attacks over the past five years, including mass shootings at a high school in Parkland, Fla.; a concert in Las Vegas; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando; and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
One gun devotee in New York destroyed his AR-15 in a viral online video days after the Florida attack and asked, “Is the right to own this weapon more important than someone's life?”
Some might say the semiautomatic rifle's appearance is menacing. Others might call it a precise work of art.
“You hear and read so many untruths about the AR-15,” said Nathan Carey, a co-owner of Bullseye Firearms Gun Vault in New Alexandria.
His shop in a former bank carries an inventory of more than 600 firearms, including two dozen AR-15s.
Carey pulled a Browning BAR rifle from his shelves and placed it next to an AR-15. The BAR shoots a higher-caliber bullet than the AR-15, yet looks like a standard hunting rifle.
“Did you know that this can hold the same number of rounds as what your AR-15 does?” Carey said. “This actually has twice the size of a bullet than what the AR-15 does. But this doesn't have the look of what people are worried about.”
Gun advocates contend that it's wrong to label semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15 as “assault weapons” because they are not fully automatic and because the guns can be used for hunting and target sport shooting.
“Unfortunately, a narrative has been promoted that AR-style rifles are inherently more dangerous than other semiautomatic rifles,” said Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “Semiautomatic rifles have been available to the American public for a century. AR-style rifles differ from other semiautomatic rifles only in appearance, not in function.”
Gun control groups, such as CeaseFire Pennsylvania, say it's wrong to compare the AR-15 to a Browning BAR or other long gun.
“We know that the AR-15 is designed to inflict damage and we know that it kills,” said Jeff Dempsey, CeaseFire PA's program director. “We have to be honest about what these things are able to do.”
Equipping an AR-15 with a bump stock makes it close to a fully automatic weapon. A bump stock, which remains legal, is an attachment that allows a semiautomatic rifle to have a “cyclic firing rate to mimic nearly continuous automatic fire” of a fully automatic weapon, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Bullseye Firearms does not sell bump stocks, and Carey has no interest in carrying them. President Trump called for banning the accessory after the Parkland attack.
“I don't think anybody is going to put up much of a fight about a bump stock,” Carey said. “I will go on record to say they are useless.”
In 2013, after the Sandy Hook attack, an assault weapons ban went before Congress and was voted down in the Senate, 60 to 40. The unsuccessful ban called for barring the “sale, transfer, manufacturing and importation” of customizable semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15.
Currently, an 18-year-old can legally purchase an AR-15 and other rifles in Pennsylvania.
Carey is not sure whether that requirement will change, but he expects new laws to emerge.
“If you are going to pass a blanket 21-year-old age requirement for all rifles, that's going to impact all of these,” he said, pointing to his collection around the store. “There's a lot of things that can and probably will be changing.”
He speculated that production of high-capacity magazines could possibly be halted.
Dempsey also expects changes.
“I hate to say this, but this is the fifth mass tragedy I've been through since I started working here,” he said. “But this one feels different. You see students taking an active role in a way they never had. Corporate America is responding in a way they never have before.”
As for AR-15 rifles, Ogline said, “They're not going anywhere any time soon.”