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The History of the AR-15

A Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine rifle. The AR-15 was invented by Eugene Stoner in the late 1950’s and was intended for military use. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The AR-15 rifle was designed by Eugene Stoner in the late 1950’s in response to a request from Willard G. Wyman, the then Commanding General of the Continental Army. Wyman wanted a military rifle that would utilize smaller bullets, which, due to their lack of stability in materials denser than water, cause much more damage to the human body than larger, more stable bullets. The AR-15 had .22 caliber bullets instead of its precursor’s .30.
Originally produced by the firearms manufacturer Armalite (hence the ‘A’ in ‘AR’), Colt bought the design in 1959. By 1965, the weapon had been adapted into the M-16, which had become the standard military assault rifle. However, in mid-1967, due to the M-16’s technological difficulties, the House Armed Services committee formed a subcommittee to investigate its “effectiveness.”

The head of the committee, Missouri Representative Richard Ichord, wrote to Stoner, asking about the physical effect of the smaller bullets. Ichord described a story he had heard from a soldier, detailing the gruesome result of the M-16 on an assailant who was shot in the head in comparison to the less destructive effect of a .30 caliber bullet under similar circumstances. Stoner explained that this is to be expected, again due to the smaller bullet’s instability.

Colt lost its M-16 contract with the government in 1988. By 1989, many of the AR-15’s original patents had expired, and “knockoff” AR-15s became common and available to civilians. Unlike the M-16, the AR-15 was only semiautomatic so as to comply with federal requirements; it could only fire one shot per trigger squeeze.

In 1994, President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban, outlawing the AR-15 and similar weapons. In 2004, the act was nullified, and AR-15s again became common. Soon after, mass shootings became more frequent. On October 7, 2007, 20 year old Tyler Peterson shot and killed seven people including himself in an apartment in Crandon, Wisconsin.
In 2009, the National Shooting Sports Foundation helped the term “Modern Sporting Rifle” gain popularity as a bi-word for AR-15 style rifles.

In June 2012, James Holmes, 24, used an AR-15 style weapon to kill 12 and injure 70 at a movie theater in Colorado. Later that year, Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother at home, then killed 20 students between the ages of six and seven and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School using primarily an AR-15.

The AR-15 remained popular. The NRA remarked that perhaps the “AR” should stand for “America’s Rifle.” Anyone 18 and older could buy an assault weapon, often with little to no waiting period or comprehensive background checks, despite these being mandated by federal legislation. Many guns are sold illegally or by sellers without a federal license, who do not need to conduct background checks.

In 2013, John Zawahri used an AR-15 style rifle to kill five and injure others at a house in Santa Monica, CA. In 2015, Syed Rizwyan Farook and Tashfeen Malik used AR-15 style rifles to kill 14 and injure 21 in San Bernardino, California.

In 2016, Omar Mateen used an AR-15 style rifle to kill 49 and injure 58 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Although Eugene Stoner, the originator of the AR-15, passed away in 1997, his family commented on the use of the weapon. “Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47,” the Stoner family told NBC News in June 2016. “He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events.”

In October, 2017, Stephen Paddock, 64, used an AR-15 and other weapons when he killed 58 people and injured many more from his hotel window at a Los Angeles music festival. In November of the same year, 26 year old Devin Kelley killed 26 people in a church in Texas using an AR-15.

The next day Dean Winslow, President Trump’s top pick for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, took a moment to remark “how insane it is that in the United States of America, a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15,” during a hearing in Washington. He later asserted that this comment caused his appointment to the position to be put on indefinite hold, causing him to withdraw his name from consideration.

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The History of the AR-15