Late fatherhood and quintuple-bypass surgery have in recent years conspired to awaken a long-dormant political bug in David Letterman, and so he’s increasingly trying to do a sort of triangulation between Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose, having Serious Conversations with Important People.
Take an interview with NBC newsman Brian Williams early this month, in which the pair spent a good deal of the segment talking gun control. The chitchat ranged from the surprisingly even-handed (Letterman speaks of the gun culture of the West as both “thriving” and “legitimate”) to the head-scratching (Williams casually compares the right to bear arms spelled out explicitly in the Second Amendment to the right to an abortion decocted from the 14th). But the most instructive bit was the pair’s consideration of an advertisement in Farm & Ranch magazine for the LaRue Tactical OBR 7.62, a thoroughly souped-up semiautomatic adapted from the platform of the now-infamous AR-15, with collapsible stock, pistol grip, tactical rail, and just about every source of target illumination possible. In other words, the kind of rifle the median voter would find very, very assaulty.
Williams plausibly points out that the ad, taglined “Peace of Mind Out to 1200 Yards” is simply the way they advertise a firearm in most of the country, even if “people in the urban east” think it a “striking image.” Letterman, after conceding that hunting rifles and sidearms for personal protection (or “shootin’ gophers”) are fine, wonders why anybody would need to own a weapon like the OBR 7.62 unless he were hunting “Martians.”
So in the interests of Red-Blue American harmony, I figured I’d see if I could figure out why rifles modeled on the AR-15 are the most popular in America.
SWEET SPOT: LOW RECOIL, HIGH ACCURACY The AR-15 and its countless cousins and variants are the civilian knockoff of the M-16/M-4 platforms, which most of our soldiers and Marines carry into battle. The base round for those platforms is the 5.56 × 45 mm cartridge, which has been the standard NATO caliber for decades. Using a military-grade cartridge has its advantages. The 5.56 is the product of development and testing in a number of countries across many years. In the U.S. the 5.56-barreled M-16 replaced the heavier M-14 with its 7.62 mm round, on the evidence that it was wieldier and, despite its smaller size, could be more effectively brought to bear on the enemy by the average infantryman. The 5.56 round — known for its somewhat unstable aerodynamics and thus its ability to inflict carnage on impact — was modified again by our gentler European allies when NATO began widespread adoption. They replaced the American projectile with a slower, more stable version that was considered both more accurate at long range and more humane. Most civilian AR-15 variants use the .223 cartridge, externally nearly identical to the 5.56, but even slower still.
The round is widely considered to be a jack-of-all-trades, not perfect along any one dimension, but better than average along many. According to a civilian who works in munitions for the U.S. Army, whom we’ll call Ringo, this helps explain its popularity among ordinary gun owners. “You can shoot 5.56 mm all day long,” Ringo tells me. “The recoil is slight. I’d shoot 500 rounds in a session at the range if I could afford to, and my shoulder would be none the worse for wear. At the same time, you can shoot it accurately out to 300 yards pretty easily. That’s not something you’re going to do with a .22LR.”
The .22LR, by the way, is a hugely popular round used to hunt small game like rabbits, and by casual target shooters. The cartridges are small and blunt and old-timey looking, very unlikely to scare anyone in the “urban east” or make it into the proscriptions of an “executive action.” It was .22LR rounds that killed a score of kids in a pair of Finnish school shootings. They also killed Robert F. Kennedy and gravely wounded Ronald Reagan.
THEY’RE CUSTOMIZABLE Another advantage of the AR-15 is that it is less a rifle than a rifle platform. Variants are produced by more than 60 armorers, and most are themselves highly customizable. Says Ringo, “You can personalize them in a myriad of ways: sights, stocks, triggers, flashlights, fore grips. You name it.”
You can also swap calibers. The lower receiver — including the grip, the trigger, and the magazine housing — is universal, and its sale across state lines is heavily regulated, requiring federal firearms licenses. But the upper receivers, which include barrels, are swappable, and are available in a variety of calibers for a variety of purposes, including larger calibers for bigger game (Ringo tells me 5.56 is good for “varmints” but recommended the .50 Beowulf round for “hogs”), and you can have them shipped right to your front door in most states.
THEY’RE JUST COOL It can’t be denied that the cool factor is part of the popularity of the AR-15. “Tactical” is close to an erotic adjective in certain circles, and where aghast liberals see a certain brutalism in the military lines of the AR-15, others see clean lines, utility, and tactical badassery. Some folks like Ferraris, others prefer Volkswagens. To what extent the aesthetic is integral to the rifle’s popularity is unclear, and whether that aesthetic appeals to psychopaths more than to law-abiding citizens is unclearer by orders of magnitude. Some on the left have made a to-do over the fact that the Aurora, Newtown, and Portland shooters used AR-15 variants. But the rifle’s very popularity renders this coincidence statistically unsurprising — and inert. If the last three mass shooters used the same obscure receiver chambered for the same obscure round, it might be interesting. That they used a platform coveted by half of the gun-owning country tells you little. Besides, if the gun used in Newtown was indeed legal under Connecticut’s “assault weapons” restrictions — which mirror the expired federal ban — it would have lacked, at least, the muzzle device and collapsible stock of models like the OBA 7.62. These bells and whistles may add to the sexiness of the AR-15 family, but they also convince the Williamses and Lettermans of the urban east that they’re fit only for hunting Martians, rather than varmints.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.