Why do civilians own AR-15s? This is one of the questions I hear most frequently when people learn I study American gun culture. Sometimes genuine curiosity motivates the question, but more often it is a statement masquerading as a question: Civilians should not be able to own AR-15s. Or, as assault weapons ban advocates from Barack Obama to Hilary Clinton to Joe Biden have put it, “Weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
The passage of an assault weapons ban 30 years ago makes clear that this is not a new issue. But each civilian mass public murder committed with an AR-15 reopens the question. In four of the five deadliest mass public shootings in U.S. history, the gunman used an AR-15. As all of these incidents have happened since I first started studying American gun culture in 2012, I have had too many occasions to address the question of civilian ownership of these rifles.
Unfortunately, I find it ever more difficult to put forward my sincere answers to this question. More accurately, I find it ever more difficult for people to accept my answers as sincere. Emotions around the AR-15 are too high. The massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012 was a definitive turning point. As Wall Street Journal reporters Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elison observe in their recently published book, American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15, “Half a century after Eugene Stoner invented the rifle, [the AR-15] had arrived as the fulcrum of America’s great gun divide” (p. 292). Evoking a perfect image, McWhirter and Elinson characterize the AR-15 as “just a cultural chew toy for angry partisans” (p. 305).
This is the context in which McWhirter and Elinson promise to tell The True Story of the AR-15. The book is an impressive accomplishment in certain ways, but in reaching this lofty goal, they are only partially successful. If this book were titled “The AR-15: From Stoner to Mass Shootings,” I would have had very different expectations for the reading experience.
I will leave it to firearms historians and gun cranks to assess the author’s history of Stoner’s development of the AR-15. I will leave it to public health scholars to assess the relationship they draw between AR-15s and mass shootings. I will leave it to political scientists to assess their analysis of the politics of gun control. But when they claim they are going to “explore American gun culture, revealing the broad appeal of the AR-15,” as they do on the book’s jacket, they are on my territory. And it is on this ground one finds the book’s biggest shortcomings.
From the Prologue through Postscript, McWhirter and Elinson extensively cover the havoc wreaked by people using AR-15s. I didn’t count the pages, but I would feel safe betting that more pages cover the havoc than any other topic in relation to the AR-15, including the history of its development. Although this clearly highlights their appropriate compassion for innocent victims of crime, it does raise concern about fairness in relation to the broad appeal of the AR-15. (I detail this criticism at length in a review of American Gun published in The Reload.)
The book jacket claims that American Gun “is a moral history of contemporary America’s love affair, with technology, freedom, profit, and weaponry.” Although McWhirter and Elinson are reporters, the claim that their book offers a “moral history” suggests this is not a case of objectively reporting the facts. That would make a boring story, indeed.
There are many times I see the authors putting their thumbs on the scale as they present different elements of their story. For example, they describe the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival murderer as “America’s worst nightmare: a wealthy psychopath who could pass a background check in a land where people could buy as many AR-15s as they want” (p. 312). America’s worst nightmare? The publisher should have fact-checked this rhetoric.
Again referring to Las Vegas, McWhirter and Elinson assert, “the unavoidable fact was that a device created to protect America was wounding it” (p. 309). A more factual statement than the worst nightmare, to be sure, but the authors never assess the relative balance between the protecting and the wounding. Rather than weighing the positives against the negatives, the authors consistently tip the scale toward the wounding.
More significantly, in the Postscript they consider the question, raised by Brownell’s 2020 “What would Stoner do?” AR-15 variant, the authors say Stoner’s daughter, Susan Kleinpell, “didn’t think he designed the AR-15 with the civilian market in mind, but she said she didn’t really know what he thought.” They add that “Stoner’s close friends had conflicting views about what he would say today” (p. 381). But the only two friends they mention, Robert Bihun from ARES and Jim Sullivan from the original ArmaLite team, both maintain that Stoner never wanted civilian use of his rifle (pp. 381-82). Where are the other views?
In the mass shootings and politics parts of the book, McWhirter and Elinson do better to highlight conflicting views about what is to be done. In the end, they highlight problems with “assault weapon” bans and lean toward strategies like magazine capacity limits, Extreme Risk Protection Orders (“red flag laws”), and firearm purchase permit requirements. People will certainly disagree on these particular regulations, but I do appreciate that the book begins by highlighting a point on which everyone agrees: “Something has to change, and true change has to focus on the core issue: How do we as a society keep this weapon out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have such a gun?” (p. 7).
But The True Story of the AR-15 should also do a much better job of understanding the millions of Americans who have this weapon in their hands unproblematically. I know why AR-15s have broad appeal to civilians in the United States. But readers seeking an answer to that question will learn preciously little from this book, despite its other strengths.
David Yamane is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. His book on American gun culture, Gun Curious, will be published in 2024. He discussed American gun culture on his Gun Culture 2.0 blog and his “Light Over Heat” YouTube channel.