In The Shadow of The AR-15

Every week, I notice a story that gets lost in the usual tide of politics, the economy and Trump. Like a diamond in the rough, when I do find it, it fills my heart with excitement, only for me to realize that far and few are celebrating with me; largely because the main scope of the story isn’t immediately obvious.

Colt, one of the world’s biggest firearms manufacturer, announced last week that it will suspend production of its AR-15 assault rifle, among other military rifles, to the civilian market.

“The fact of the matter is that over the last few years, the market for modern sporting rifles has experienced significant excess manufacturing capacity,” announced Colt CEO Dennis Veilleux in a company press release on Thursday. “Given this level of manufacturing capacity, we believe there is adequate supply for modern sporting rifles for the foreseeable future.”

So there are too many of these things around. Well, we already knew that, because just about anybody in the U.S. can get their hands on one. No, the big takeaway from this is that once these rifles are all purchased by Second Amendment fans, there will be none left for following generations to purchase – and that is important.

Why? The AR-15, or ArmaLite AR-15, is, in many variant forms, the civilian version of the well-known military M16 and M4 assault rifles. That’s where I think the absurdity lies: a civilian shouldn’t have access to an assault rifle because frankly no one needs 30 rounds of full-automatic fire for target practice or hunting deer. Backwoods of North America aren’t, contrary to popular belief, filled with active war zones and guerrilla groups waiting to kidnap your family.

More so, it’s the AR-15’s destructive impact on human life that’s turned it into the lethal weapon that it is. Christchurch Mosque, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Santa Fe High School, to name a few. Just type ‘AR-15’ in a Google search and the stories are disturbing and gut-wrenching.

But exactly what makes the AR-15 so popular and so deadly? The answer lies directly in its design and its rich military history.

Full disclosure: I love playing first-person shooter video games. As a huge fan of military history (Vietnam War in particular) I love the AR-15’s design and I respect it as the brilliant piece of technology that it is. This is my own take on the subject and what it means to me.

Born in the jungle

Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle, The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

During the Cold War, as America was making advancements left and right in aerospace, automotive and weapons technology, some manufacturers were on the prowl to give the U.S. Military its next revolutionary rifle. Among them was ArmaLite, which had an ambitious rifle design that could serve its country in war-zones around the world for decades to come. At least, so they thought.

Despite its appeal today, the AR-15 had a cold reception with U.S. military brass upon its initial unveiling in the mid-1950s. Unlike the old-fashioned, wood and steel-built M-14, the AR-15 was clad in plastic components and was significantly lighter – to the point that some regarded it as toy-like. With few bites, ArmaLite eventually sold the design to Colt in 1959.

The AR-15 remained dormant until 1963, when the U.S. military selected Colt as its manufacturer, who streamlined Armalite’s design and re-christened the rifle as the M16. With conflict in Southeast Asia picking up momentum, the M16 soon became standard issue for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War.

By 1966, after having won over the hearts of the Army and the Marines, the U.S. military ordered an additional 419,277 M16 rifles; they were praised for their lightness and futuristic plastic components, supposedly needing little maintenance.

Except, they did. Badly. Reports say rumours about problematic M16’s flooded out of Vietnam, which included weapons failing to feed, failing to fire and failing to extract. All of that was (you guessed it) related to poor maintenance. Soldiers in the field were neither trained nor properly equipped to take care of their rifles; a problem that was compounded by Vietnam’s hot and humid climate. Some were even killed when they tried to fire and their M16s jammed. After the news reached the Pentagon, Colt was brought back in to address the issues, but it wasn’t until late 1967/early 1968 when improved M16s reached Vietnam.

By 1976, a bloody and destructive Vietnam War had finally ended, and the U.S. had itself a modern battle rifle unlike any other. Designated the M16A1, it was light, very accurate, and, after years of trial and error, actually reliable. It was also by this point in time that Colt’s patents for the AR-15 expired, leaving the design open for the taking by other firearm manufacturers. Though none of the rifles were officially called the AR-15 after that, the name stuck, with a massive market of civilian semi-automatic AR-15’s ready to be harvested.

Rise to infamy

One critical thing that happened decades after the AR-15 patent expired is that the rifle continued to evolve in its on way, both in civilian and military applications. It became even lighter; it had stronger components, it was more versatile and modular for quick customization; multiple calibers became available for added flexibility in ammunition. In essence, the AR-15 was shaped into whatever customers wanted it to be, making it a highly-sought product.

A modern semi-automatic AR-15 with an optical scope and upgraded handrails. (Getty)

Yet, for the most part, no one, apart from gun fanatics and the army, really knew or cared about it. That is, until the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, when the public started talking about the AR-15 and “military-style” assault rifles. Both gunmen, who were former students, took their own lives after killing 12 students and a teacher using an AR-15 and several other firearms.

A vigil held on the premises of Columbine High School following the shooting in 1999. Jeff Haynes; Rick Wilking; David Handschuh/Getty Images

And see, this is the thing. You can’t talk about this rifle without bringing up Columbine. You can’t talk about it without at least giving some thought to all the victims that followed after Columbine. At least, I can’t. It’s hard to ignore all the grief and anger that was startled in the public that day in 1999, not only in the U.S., but around the world. The AR-15 wasn’t the only weapon used in the Columbine attack, but it certainly was the most effective.

I mean, even when the good guys have these rifles, people still feel uneasy around them. In 2017, I wrote a piece about how the RCMP was nationally arming its officers with semi-automatic carbines after too many instances where the police themselves were outgunned (such as the Moncton, N.B. shooting in 2014). Most residents were hesitant, at best.

A murky future

The AR-15 will always be a topic of controversy and heated debate. Gun lobbyists will never back down from their Second Amendment, and to this day strongly believe the old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people” and that the AR-15 is just a tool of the trade and not any more dangerous than a hammer. Right. A tool of the trade that can fire 30 rounds with deadly accuracy as fast as you can squeeze the trigger and capable of carrying ammunition known to cause internal organs to literally explode and bone to instantly shatter.

There’s also another bit of detail worth mentioning. Colt is the only manufacturer who is suspending production of these rifles; let’s not forget that there are countless other companies who make AR-15-style carbines, some even more advanced than Colt’s design. Currently, there are an estimated three million AR-15-style carbine assault rifles in the U.S. alone, so still plenty of supply to go around.

As things currently stand in Canada, the AR-15’s fate lies in the middle of the nation’s largest rival parties: the Liberal Party and Conservative Party. The Liberals seek to ban it from civilian hands (as they’ve done so in the past) while the Conservatives plan on removing it from the restricted firearms category, opening ownership to all. To be clear, if a weapon is in the restricted category, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get it, it just means you need to pass further testing and evaluation to legally acquire it. Removing that restriction means it’s much easier to get one with a standard gun licence.

This is where I have a problem with the AR-15. While bringing such a deadly firearm to the masses is good business and keeps the select few satisfied, it’s also big disservice to the rest of us. Why? Because not everyone respects it. Not everyone fears it. Not everyone feels our police is sufficient to keep us safe.

Will other manufacturers follow Colt’s path? Who knows. One thing is for certain however. With each mass shooting in which an AR-15 is used to kill or maim, the public’s anger and grief only grows stronger and more chaotic; arguably, to the point that not even pro-gun groups will be able to handle.

Further reading:

A Brief History Of The AR-15

A short history of the AR-15 in Canada

Columbine Anniversary

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