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The AR-15 Has No Business Being in the Hands of Civilians

AR-15s like the one used in Uvalde are combat weapons meant for war, yet there are 11 million in circulation in the U.S.

Chris Shelton, 36, oversees his son Luke Shelton, 7, as he steadies an AR-15 rifle at the George R. Brown Convention Center during the National Rifle Association annual convention on May 28, 2022, in Houston, Texas.
  1. Content warning: This story includes graphic descriptions of gun violence and its effects on the human body.

As the nation absorbs the horror of yet another massacre of schoolchildren, questions about the police’s response to the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, have become paramount. According to still conflicting reports, police became aware of an active shooter within Robb Elementary School but did not enter the building and engage the attacker for more than 70 minutes. In that span, the gunman was able to kill 19 children and two teachers with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

The Washington Post reports:

Since the shooting, officials have faced withering criticism over the series of details that they have released about the shooting, only to later say that information was incorrect. Authorities initially said the gunman exchanged fire with a school police officer outside, only to later say this never happened; they also said the shooter was wearing body armor but reversed course on that count as well….

Police have also been pilloried for not pursuing the gunman more quickly while he was inside with children calling 911, pleading for help. McCraw said the school district’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, had determined the gunman had “transitioned from an active shooter to a barricaded subject,” so there was a delay of more than an hour before officials stormed the classroom. “It was the wrong decision,” McCraw said.

The image of police officers refusing to enter the building while tear-gassing and handcuffing parents who were trying to get in has left an indelible mark on the national psyche. Heightening the tension, both the Uvalde Police Department and the Uvalde Independent School District police force are now refusing to cooperate with investigators.

An answer to the question of why the police failed to act may have been inadvertently provided on Sunday night, when the CBS News show “60 Minutes” aired a harrowing report on why mass shooters so often choose this rifle. The reason, according to “60 Minutes,” lies within the ballistics. Rounds fired by the AR-15 travel at three times the speed of sound. According to report, this high-velocity ammunition “is the fear of every American emergency room.”

Using a long gelatin brick rectangle specifically designed to mimic the human body’s soft tissue, “60 Minutes” fired one round from a Glock 9mm pistol into the block. The bullet passed through the material in a straight line, and exited intact. A round fired from the AR-15, however, exploded into pieces within the gelatin, and created a massive internal void from the impact.

A parade of first responders spent the report explaining their experiences when they entered a room where a gunman with an AR-15 has been at work. The people are not merely dead, they are smashed into unrecognizable pulp by the sheer force of the rounds that struck them. Bones are not broken upon impact; they are shattered. Internal organs are viciously shredded by multiple buzzsaws released when the tumbling bullet fractures within living tissue. Any shots to the head or face make physical identification nearly impossible; there’s nothing left to identify.

The question of why the Uvalde police refused to enter the building while the shooter was still active may have been answered by that “60 Minutes” report: I suspect they knew, better than anyone, what that weapon is capable of, and wanted no part of it. The juxtaposition of their inaction compared to the parents they arrested is stark. The parents wanted to rush in and rescue their children, and some did, because they did not know what they were running toward. Perhaps the cops knew, and therefore froze.

This is not a defense of the Uvalde police. Their actions, and their scrambled story afterward, speak loudly enough on their own. This is the defenestration of the “Good guy with a gun” NRA talking point. There were plenty of state-sanctioned “guys” with guns at Robb Elementary, and still 21 bodies hit the floor. No number of security guards or armed teachers can match that level of violence and damage. If trained law enforcement officers cannot face that situation, it is folly to believe a kindergarten teacher can.

Nor should they be expected to, and that’s the rub. Somehow, the AR-15 itself has managed to avoid close scrutiny, even with its status as the most popular rifle in the country. I expect the NRA has been influential in this, as that organization has become nothing more than a front for the gun manufacture industry, and all it is interested in is selling the thing. However this veil of secrecy came to be, the fact remains that the AR-15 is a combat weapon meant for soldiers, and has no business on the civilian streets of the U.S.

Debate over how best to confront this ongoing calamity has ranged from a coordinated student strike when school begins in September, to the argument that the public should see the aftermath of one of these butcher sessions, if only to understand what defenders of the AR-15 are actually talking about. That was the approach chosen by Emmet Till’s mother, who allowed the public and the press to observe the body of her son after he was murdered by a vicious, racist mob.

“In the case of Uvalde,” writes Susie Linfield for The New York Times, “a serious case can be made — indeed, I agree with it — that the nation should see exactly how an assault rifle pulverizes the body of a 10-year-old…. A violent society ought, at the very least, to regard its handiwork, however ugly, whether it be the toll on the men and women who fight in our name, on ‘ordinary’ crime victims killed or wounded by guns or on children whose right to grow up has been sacrificed to the right to bear arms.”

The fact that getting rid of AR-15s is not deemed even worth discussing in most political quarters of our country tells us far too much about the militaristic, nihilistic bloodbath nation we have become. They are combat weapons that deliver combat injuries, “civilian” appellations notwithstanding. The Uvalde cops likely quailed at the thought of facing just one of them, and according to a former gun-manufacturer executive, there are more than 20 million such weapons in mass circulation today. They must go, period, end of file.

This article has been updated to correct the number of AR-15 rifles currently in circulation. An earlier version, citing 11 million, was incorrect. – wrp

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