The big “thought balloon” being considered by several people, and endorsed by President Donald Trump, is a new age restriction on semi-automatic rifles. AP has already provided a roundup of the idea, while also positing it was Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump who are really pushing the President to act. It’s understandable why people see the AR-15 as almost akin to Tolkien’s “One Ring” or Thor’s Mjölnir, especially if their opinion is only based on how the rifle looks, which is similar to an M16 or an M4. Most people see the rifles and go, “Oh noes! Can’t have that!” then cue up the creepy music from Doom.
There are a few problems with this notion, the first being the fact both rifles operate differently. The M16 and M4’s are select-fire weapons, meaning they can fire as either a semi-automatic, burst, or fully automatic (depending on the variant), while the AR-15 is just a semi-automatic. One person asked me incredulously, “What do you mean the AR-15 is just semi-automatic?” when I explained the difference. They still believed no one should own an AR-15, but at least they now know the difference between the AR-15 and the others. That’s a step in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned, because they learned something they didn’t know beforehand. Baby steps.
The second problem is the hunting aspect. People typically believe hunters use single-shot, bolt action rifles or shotguns whilst out hunting game, much like Elmer Fudd from Looney Tunes. There are still hunters who use these weapons, and use them successfully. Outdoor Life has a list of what they believe are the best deer hunting rifles, and almost all of them are bolt action rifles. The other one…is an AR-15. AR-15s are becoming extremely popular with hunters, and multiple hunting magazines have articles on why the AR’s durability, customization, and faster firing ability really resonate with game hunters. TIME, yes, TIME magazine, talked to multiple hunters on the rifle’s popularity in 2016, and what animals they liked to hunt with the rifle.
One reason could be because AR-15 takes two kinds of calibers: .223 and 5.56. The former is typically used for hunting, while the latter is used for self defense, and by law enforcement. This is where things get dicey for people who want to raise the AR-15 purchasing age to 21. There are plenty of threads on hunting message boards looking at what kind of rifle caliber to train younger hunters on. The prevailing theory appears to be using the .223-caliber because it has less recoil. So parents could take their AR-15’s out hunting, and train teens using .223 rounds. Realtree blogger Michael Pendley even explained why the AR-15 was a good rifle for young hunters, noting ammo manufacturers were making more hunting rounds in the .223 caliber. An older teen hunter would probably want to stay with the AR-15 and use .223 rounds while out in the field. This is why it really doesn’t make sense to raise the purchasing age to 21 because you’re essentially telling a teen they can’t use the rifle they’ve trained on for years, or forcing them to borrow one whenever they go out in the field. This puts them in a legal quandary if they live in a state like California or New Jersey, where there are restrictions on AR-15’s. The same goes for any other state if Congress decides to raise the age for buying AR-15s.
The third problem is a historical one. Semi-automatic rifles were originally created for the civilian market, but eventually made their way into the military. The Standard Catalog of Remington Firearms notes the old Model 8 “was the first successful American semi-autom sporting rifle.” It appears the M1 Garand is when semi-automatic rifles became focused on the military use first, before civilian use. One of these reasons is because developer Springfield Armory was owned by the U.S. government. It’s interesting to see how government focus on weapons development increased as the U.S. became more involved in international conflicts. It was really a role reversal with gun manufacturers making arms for the Pentagon, before selling it on the civilian market. Other semi-automatic rifles were still being developed and sold to civilians, but the M16 style was strictly for military.
Richard Mann believes one reason why the AR-15 jumped in popularity was because of the political footballing of the White House, starting after Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush who had replaced Bill Clinton. Mann suggested in GunDigest Shooter’s Guide to the AR-15 people started buying AR-15’s because they expected the Democratically held government to re-pass the Assault Weapons ban.
In essence, all this political jockeying served to do was reinforce the AR as the most popular firearm in the United States. Shelves were empty of ARs, ammunition, and many other types of firearms for months. And, as more and more Americans bought Cars in various configurations, more companies building ARs and AR accessories emerged.
Yes, to some extent, the AR has become the most popular firearm in the free world due to politics. But, as shooters purchased ARs, maybe only because they thought that next week or next month they may not be able to, more shooters learned about the versatility the platform offered. Now, the demand for ARs is higher than it ever has been for any other firearm at any time (and the demand for AR ammunition and accessories is just as high)…
It’s interesting because CNN reported in 2015 the market for AR-15s is relatively small for civilians, and law enforcement was focused on buying the weapons. I’ve no idea if this is true or not, but it’s still an interesting note. It also raises the question if a ban is really worth it because the market is so small on the civilian front. I’m not sure if the federal background check system keeps the information on who is asking for AR’s or their age. If the Florida shooter is an anomaly in AR-15 sales, then there’s no point in raising the age because the under-21 market is so low. The FBI’s detail on NICS data only shows how many requests were done, and not the age of those making the request. I have filed a FOIA with the FBI to see if a more detailed description, including how many minors requested to buy a long gun, is available.
The fourth problem with raising the age of the AR-15 is how many variants there are, and not just .223/5.56 versions. S&W makes eleven .22LR versions of the AR-15 and there are 14 AR-15-style 22LR’s for sale on CheaperThanDirt.com (along with two AK-74 versions). Would these versions be included in any plan to raise the age to 21 or not? Again, it’s a dicey situation before anyone really considers any potential “solution” to the issue.
I understand why people are running to the government to “do something!” due to the emotional nature of the issue. The question is whether or not there really is a problem with minors going to buy long rifles, or whether they tend to wait until they’re 21 to get it. I’m not sure the government really is the solution to this issue, or whether more gun shops should use their “power to refuse service,” to people under the age of 21, unless they actually know, and trust, the buyer.