How guns became gadgets—lightweight, easy to use, and more effective than ever

The AR-15, the same style of rifle used in the massacre in Newtown, CT, is highly customizable.
The AR-15, the same style of rifle used in the massacre in Newtown, CT, is highly customizable.
Image: Flickr users jonsthedrummer02, ShootJoeC, Moto@Club4AG, robscomputer
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It doesn’t take more than a few hundred dollars and a trip to a Wal-Mart in the US to create an assault rifle identical to the one used to murder 27 people in an elementary school last Friday. Under laws that have been on the books since gangster Al Capone proved the devastating capacity of machine guns, Americans can’t buy fully automatic rifles. But the action on modern assault rifles is so smooth that one can still fire four shots a second, simply by squeezing the trigger as quickly as possible. You only have to reload every 20 shots, or 30 with a bigger magazine. Owing to the design of modern bullet magazines, reloading only takes a few seconds.

Despite being a “long gun,” a properly configured AR-15-style assault rifle can weigh less than the average laptop computer (about 5.5 pounds) and its longer barrel makes no-look aiming easier than with a pistol. The optional collapsible stock (the part that usually protrudes from the back of the gun) is perfect for maneuvering indoors, and the gun has very little kick, allowing a user to squeeze off round after round while staying on-target.

The bullets an AR-15-style assault rifle can fire are available in a wider variety than those available to the US military. While troops are in many cases limited to solid slugs designed to penetrate both walls and people, the hollow-tipped bullets favored by many AR-15 fans are, according to the magazine Guns and Ammo, “specifically created for defense against two-legged predators.” These bullets fragment on impact, transferring as much energy to their targets as possible, which “creates a very impressive wound cavity.”

An AR-15, in other words, is how you turn a schoolroom into an abattoir for six year old children.

Guns, unlike almost every other technology, are unique in that the more they improve, the less safe they become. As William Saletan outlined at Slate, whatever your feelings about gun control, the general trend is that the faster a weapon fires, the more people die in any one particular massacre.

The AR-15 shows how guns have become gadgets, thanks to technological change and an army of fanboys connected over the Internet. It’s a military weapon in the hands of civilians, so exquisitely designed that it might as well have been invented in Cupertino by Apple. It’s the iPhone 5 of guns, only instead of an app ecosystem, it has an ecosystem of parts and ammunition designed to make it as effective as possible.

The AR-15 lacks a burst-firing capability, but in all other respects it is functionally identical to the US Military’s standard M16 rifle.
The AR-15 lacks a burst-firing capability, but in all other respects it is functionally identical to the US Military’s standard M16 rifle.
Image: AP/Anja Niedringhaus

The AR-15-style rifle is based on a design first used in World War II, which subsequently became the standard rifle used by the US military, the M16 and its near-identical cousin, the M4. The many AR-15s made by various manufacturers are collectively the most popular rifle in America. In a recent survey, the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that fully one-third of those who owned AR-15 style rifles purchased them in just the past two years.

In journalist Dan Baum’s brief book on gun culture, Guns Gone Wild, the author interviews fans of the AR-15 who try to explain its appeal. They end up comparing it to a Lego set—it’s so customizable, aficionados can spend up to thousands of dollars tricking theirs out with lasers, optical sights, even a grenade launcher. (Here’s one built by hobbyists that holds 330 rounds, weighs 23 pounds, and in an earlier age would probably qualify as a piece of field artillery.)

A tour through the message boards on which AR-15 owners swap pictures of their guns reveals a near-infinite variety of combinations of barrels, stocks, triggers, pistol grips etc. As the product of a long evolution in firearms technology, the AR-15 is lightweight, easy to use, affordable, accurate, rarely jams, has a high muzzle velocity and in every respect makes its user as effective a killing machine as possible.

There are a number of proposals on the table about what America should do to stop its citizens from being terrorized by the threat of mass killings, from improvements in mental health and better enforcement of existing laws to new restrictions on guns and bullets. Some have even proposed, in effect, giving America’s teachers their own AR-15s. But even those who concentrate on the toxic mix of abuse, neglect and clinical narcissism that appears to motivate school shooters argue that what’s unique about the 21st century is not troubled youth, but easy access to weapons.

It should be beyond comment that the more lethal we make our guns, the more people they will kill, but in this heated debate, apparently it’s not. No civil society would allow a big box retailer to sell a death ray, or any other science-fiction gizmo that could make killing trivially easy. And yet every year, technological progress means better-designed, easier to use, and perfectly legal guns approach that ideal.