What’s so special about the AR-15?

Emma Teitel on who needs military assault weapons
Participants with modified AR-15 assault rifles during a two hour Navy SEAL training at the Sealed Mindset gun range in New Hope, Minn, Sept. 4, 2012. The gun range in suburban Minneapolis offers the pricey role-playing experience of killing Osama bin Laden. (Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times)

In place of a Second Amendment, Canadians have collective head-scratching about why it isn’t obvious that an assault rifle doesn’t belong in the hands of an ordinary citizen. “Who needs that?” is the typical Canadian question. “Nobody,” is the typical refrain. And yet it seems that a lot of people do “need that,” or claim to. This month—in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, and which saw another school shooting, this time at Lone Star College in Houston—the National Rifle Association added more than 200,000 Obama-wary members to its four-million-plus ranks. And last weekend, Guns Across America—an online community of American gun enthusiasts—drew thousands of people in state capitals to protest President Obama’s new gun-control proposal. Obama’s inauguration this week followed a series of proposed congressional actions that would, among other things, reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons and limit legal ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. According to a new poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 41 per cent of Americans are fond of the NRA—loony Wayne LaPierre and all—meaning 41 per cent of Americans are also fond of military assault weapons. Who needs that? Apparently, they do.

But why? I don’t know anything about guns, and I’ve never in my life shot one (unless you count a Super Soaker), which means that, really, I have no business answering this question. So I thought I’d ask someone else. Willem Veenhof is a 71-year-old gun owner and resident of Brevard, a small town of about 7,000 people in western North Carolina. He owns an indoor shooting range called Bear Arms. I asked him why any normal, mentally stable person would need an AR-15, the big black shiny gun we see on TV—the same kind of gun Adam Lanza and James Holmes used to commit unspeakable crimes—and he told me this: “It’s an ideal weapon for varmint hunting.”

“The AR-15,” said Veenhof, “has its specific place in the hunting scene.” That place is for shooting small animals at short range, because a “long-range gun is a high-powered round” that “would blow to pieces whatever you hit, and when you’re hunting for meat, you don’t want to blow the meat to pieces.” So why not use a less formidable old-school hunting rifle? Because, says John Anderson, editor of The Varmint Hunter magazine, “Let’s say you were out hunting. If [the game] was running,” the AR-15 allows “you to get a shot off faster” than a typical hunting rifle would. Faster as in 45 rounds per minute. That’s a lot of varmint.

Veenhof and Anderson don’t come off as guys who loathe President Obama, or anyone. They’re just annoyed that the people trying to disarm them know little to nothing about the arms they carry. (The popular notion that hunters do not use semi-automatic weapons is a perfect example of this.) Explaining marksmanship to gun control activists is, from their perspective, I imagine, a lot like explaining evolution to a group of creationists. You’ve lost the game before you’ve begun.

Still, justified as they think they are in using so-called assault rifles, the question remains: who needs that? Even Anderson will admit that the AR-15 is not essential for varmint hunting—“I don’t know if anybody needs a gun like that, but certainly a lot of people like a gun like that”—nor is it the most popular gun for hunting small animals. So why the American obsession with guns that can kill so many so fast?

Veenhof said that beyond hunting, he “needs” a semi-automatic to protect himself from would-be home invaders or potential gang threats. “If you are involved in a gang situation, what’s good about a gun with a couple of rounds in it?” he asked. Veenhof keeps a gun in his night table and another one in an undisclosed location in his house. He also carries one on his person, in case he is attacked on the go. Like millions of his countrymen, he is perpetually prepared for the absolute worst eventuality, with weapons capable of inflicting the absolute worst, and yet he has never, in all his 71 years, been in a shooting. Maybe the operative question then isn’t “Who needs that?” but “Who—or what—makes someone think he does?”

Greg Bell is a 24-year-old Albertan gun owner and Canadian soldier. The first time he fired a gun, he was 10 years old. He owns a semi-automatic. I asked him why, unlike Veenhof, he doesn’t feel the need to sleep close to his guns; why he is perfectly content with Canada’s gun laws, which are draconian by U.S. standards. Because we don’t have “a right to bear arms in our Constitution,” he said, “you don’t have millions of people screaming out for the open forum of guns.” In other words, Canada lacks a constitutionally validated paranoia, and the firearm neuroses that follow. America’s paranoia has been festering for centuries. Perhaps Bell is onto something, an evolutionary shift the gun-control lobby cannot stop: the American right to bear arms has morphed into a pathological need that is not quelled but bolstered by each school shooting. Guns in the United States are like sleeping pills—millions of Americans can’t sleep without them.