In the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre last November and now the Pulse nightclub killings in Orlando, Fla., this week, Paul Valone made a decision to, as he says, “up my game.”
The Bryson City, N.C., airline pilot swapped his concealed weapon from a seven-round capacity handgun to one with a 25-round magazine. And in his car trunk, he boosted his arsenal by adding an AR-15 with multiple magazines.
Mr. Valone’s decision to arm up with the AR-15 – a Vietnam-era military-style weapon promoted as a “modern sporting rifle” by the gun industry – is, for him, an exercise in meeting force with equal force.
“It’s versatile, and I use it for defense. That’s why it’s ‘America’s rifle,’ ” he says.
Valone is far from alone.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there are as many as 8 million AR-15-style rifles and its cousins in circulation – lightweight, modular, accurate, lethal systems, often sold with military boasts like “the opposition will bow down.”
But increasingly, the AR-15 and similar platforms, such the Sig Sauer MCX used by the Orlando shooter, have also become the choice of mass shooters from Aurora, Colo., to Orlando to Roseburg, Ore. Depending on the state, it's possible for someone with a clean record and $600 to walk out of a gun store with one in as little as seven minutes.
For those reasons and more, “if there’s one weapon that reflects the intractability of the gun debate in the United States, the AR-15 is it,” writes Matt Valentine, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in Politico.
'Like banning a golfer's favorite driver'
Among AR-15 owners, there is debate, too, though the scope is narrower. Steve Champion of Brooksville, Fla., says that anyone who has ever been investigated for terrorism should be automatically flagged for “conditional non-approval” – a background-check process already in place that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation three days to further investigate a potential gun purchase.
Daniel Hayes of Lexington, Ky., says that despite owning one, he actually “kind of hates the AR” and says people should be open to guarding their rights a little less greedily.
But a ban? That would be misplaced, owners say, given that AR-15s and other rifles are used in only about 1 percent of all murders in the United States every year. In that way, for many gun owners who consider themselves sportsmen, “banning the AR-15 would be like banning a golfer’s favorite driver,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In Brooksville, a small town north of Tampa, Fla., Mr. Champion says violent crime like rape and home invasions are rare – though some data suggest the violent crime rate is above the national average. Champion offers one explanation for the feeling of safety he says characterizes the town: “We’re all armed.”
To Champion, the AR-15 has wide appeal because everyone from hobbyists to hunters enjoy shooting it.
“What’s good about it is that the ammo is cheap – 30 cents on the dollar compared to any hunting round – it’s accurate from 200 yards, you can hunt with them, they’re versatile, they’re good for home defense, it’s easy to maintain, easy to take down, you can spiff it out with new quad rails, lights, lasers – it’s a fun thing to do,” he says.
And he suggests there is another benefit: “The reason a lot of these countries don’t attack us more directly is because we have hundreds of millions of guns in private hands. Go to any small town in Texas or Florida and you don’t see crime … because if anyone tries it, they’re going to get … shot.”
The notion that guns make society safer is much-debated. John Lott is a primary proponent of the claim. A study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2015 polled 150 scientists who study gun violence and found that 84 percent disagree.
In Lexington, Mr. Hayes says the AR-15 is far from the ideal companion. For one, it carries a round so light that some states don’t allow deer hunting with the standard version, because it’s likelier to maim than instantly kill.
“My family kind of hates the AR, is the funny thing: It’s not a pretty weapon, and it’s really only useful if you want to shoot a pig 12 times or do something terrible with it,” says Hayes, a writer.
“Yes, it’s useful in the Jeffersonian ‘watering the tree of liberty’ way, but I don’t think most people like me own it because they’re going to have to have it for the revolution. The AR is simply the kind of gun that people have, a classic gun, and the military version is still being used.”
'Start being gentle to one another'
As is often the case after mass shootings, public support for a ban on military-style weapons has spiked to 57 percent. Similarly, 59 percent of Americans wanted a ban after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Generally, however, polls show slight support for assault-style weapons.
For non-gun owners, the attraction to the AR-15 can be mystifying, even disorienting.
“It felt to me like a bazooka – and sounded like a cannon,” writes Gersh Kuntzman, who test-fired an AR-15 for the New York Daily News this week. “The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick … For at least an hour firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.”
But for some AR-15 owners, the gun itself is a potent symbol – and protection – of Americans’ constitutional liberty.
“Without a doubt, the intent of the Second Amendment is to provide the last in a series of checks and balances against the abuse of government, meaning that government shouldn’t be significantly more powerful than its citizens,” says Valone, the North Carolina pilot. “Given that, the AR-15 and variants are the rifles most protective of the Second Amendment.”
Many gun owners, however, sense a shift in attitudes beyond Washington. Champion, for one, says about the Orlando terror attack: “That shouldn’t have happened,” given the FBI’s previous investigations of the killer.
“This is something we have to solve as people,” adds Hayes, the Lexington AR-15 owner. “We’re going to look each other in the eye and say that we want to be able to preserve the tradition of an armed populace in accordance with the Constitution … but we have to start being gentle to one another a little bit, and not guard our rights so greedily at the cost of others.”
[Editor's note: The original story misidentified the magazine.]