American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15 
by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson.
Farrar, Straus, 473 pp., £25, September 2023, 978 0 374 10385 9
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Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture and Control in Cold War America 
by Andrew C. McKevitt.
North Carolina, 319 pp., £24.95, November 2023, 978 1 4696 7724 8
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More than​ 43,000 people were killed with guns in the United States in 2023. That’s around one death every twelve minutes. More than half of those deaths were suicides or accidents, almost 19,000 were homicides, and guns were among the leading causes of death among children and teenagers. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as an incident resulting in the death or injury of four or more people, there were 656 mass shootings in the US last year. The previous year, there were nearly 48,000 gun deaths and 647 mass shootings. In just two of these incidents – separated by ten days in May 2022, one at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the other at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas – a total of 31 people died, among them 19 children. In both cases the gunman used an AR-15-style rifle firing .223 calibre rounds.

In February 2023, Barry Moore, a Republican congressman from Alabama, introduced a bill in the US House of Representatives to ‘declare an AR-15-style rifle chambered in a .223 Remington round or a 5.56 x 45mm Nato round to be the National Gun of the United States’. The resolution was co-sponsored by three other Republicans: Lauren Boebert of Colorado, George Santos of New York (already disgraced) and Andrew Clyde, a multi-millionaire gun dealer from Georgia who had made the news by distributing AR-15 lapel pins to his colleagues in Congress. (Moore, who missed the giveaway, tweeted: ‘Save a pin for me!’) The US has never had a ‘National Gun’, and since Moore’s bill died on the floor it still doesn’t. But why would such an idea even be suggested, and why the AR-15, ‘chambered in a .223 Remington round or a 5.56 x 45mm Nato round’? How can it be that the assault weapon used in many of the deadliest mass shootings in America has been proposed, in all seriousness, as an official symbol of the United States?

Thirty-two per cent of Americans own guns, and one-fifth of gun-owners own at least one AR-15. In 2020, almost a quarter of the firearms manufactured in the US were AR-15s, and more than twenty million, perhaps as many as thirty million, were in private hands. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll in 2022 found that 81 per cent of AR-15 owners were male and 74 per cent were white, though aggressive marketing may be broadening the consumer base, especially among white women. The average AR-15 owner is a middle-aged red-state suburbanite with a higher than average income, four times as likely to identify as Republican than Democrat (though, overall, gun ownership is split more evenly between supporters of the two parties). Since the federal ban on assault weapons that was in place between 1994 and 2004 expired, sales have grown inexorably, explosively in times of crisis – natural disaster, civil unrest, pandemics – or when anything threatens to increase the likelihood of gun control legislation, such as mass shootings or a federal election. Obama’s victory in 2008 prompted what the industry called the ‘Barack Boom’. The only significant dip since then was the ‘Trump Slump’, when demand dwindled after Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 election.

The AR-15 is the rifle that has been used by the US military since Vietnam, and is familiar to most of us from news programmes, movies and video games. It was designed to be manoeuvrable and easy to shoot for foot soldiers, and is shorter and much lighter than a standard hunting rifle. Almost all AR-15s fire .223 calibre ammunition: a cartridge containing a bullet 0.223 inches in diameter (Moore’s ‘Nato round’ is almost identical in size). That’s relatively small for a rifle, which means that a soldier can carry many more rounds than if they were equipped with larger calibre firearms. It has a pistol grip, a large, curved magazine to hold the ammunition, and its stock (the triangular end of the rifle which rests against the shoulder) is often adjustable, to accommodate a range of firing positions or armour and other gear.

The AR-15 was designed to be modular, readily disassembled in the field for cleaning and maintenance. This has inadvertently made it a marketer’s dream: there is always a new accessory to add, a feature to improve, a detail to tweak. Many of its fans don’t call it a ‘rifle’ but a ‘platform’ on which you can build your own design (this is the reason Moore’s resolution mentions an ‘AR-15-style rifle’). Owners can modify virtually anything: the barrel, the stock, the grip, even the receiver (the part of the rifle that holds the loading, feeding and firing mechanisms), and accessorise with optics for aiming, perforated metal ‘shrouds’ that protect the barrel, attachments for flashlights and other accoutrements. Originally, the AR-15 was black – hence its Vietnam-era nickname, ‘black rifle’ – but now it comes in a variety of colours and designs, from ‘polished lime’ to Stars-and-Stripes to Hello Kitty. It has been called the ‘Barbie doll of guns’. An important difference between military models like the M16 – the name the US armed forces gave the AR-15 when they started using it in the 1960s – and the versions sold over the counter is that the latter are not ‘select-fire’ weapons, meaning they have no ‘automatic’ setting. Unless it is illegally modified after purchase, the AR-15 will not operate like a machine gun in a movie. Instead, the trigger must be pulled for each shot, as with a conventional semi-automatic rifle.

The AR-15’s fans have a set of ‘gotcha’ questions intended to show that the people who want to outlaw ‘assault weapons’ like the AR-15 don’t, as one industry YouTuber put it, ‘even remotely comprehend’ what they hope to ban. Clips of politicians misidentifying parts of the gun or stumbling over ill-prepared scripts describing its features circulate endlessly online. The most common of the gotchas is simply what the letters ‘AR’ stand for. The answer isn’t ‘assault rifle’ but ‘Armalite Rifle’ or ‘Armalite Research’, after the small firearms firm in southern California where Eugene Stoner invented the AR-15 in the 1950s – the rifle was version fifteen in Armalite’s product line-up.

Stoner is the reluctant protagonist of Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson’s American Gun, a history of the AR-15. In their account, he comes across as the personification of America’s understanding of its postwar legacy: an unreflective armed individualism which, run through the meat grinder of seventy years of imperial wars and domestic discontent, somehow still sees itself as well-intentioned – surprised, in its arrogance, at the devastation all around it.

I am not sure this is what McWhirter and Elinson intended. American Gun chronicles Stoner’s life as if he was someone who lived the American dream, or came pretty close, if only the AR-15 hadn’t got away from men like him, straying into an increasingly destructive life of its own. The book quotes Stoner’s daughter saying that in the 1950s, when he was a young father busy inventing guns in his garage in California, the future had seemed ‘wide open’ to him. While his children were at school learning what to do if the Soviets attacked, Stoner ‘was working to build a gun to help America defeat those communists. Stoner knew his gun could help US troops counter the durable AK-47s used by insurgents around the globe.’ He thought his work was ‘engaging but also noble’. His life story has a very American quality, a by-his-own-bootstraps tale of pluck, dedication, creativity and unorthodox thinking that eventually won over the country’s military leadership despite bureaucratic inertia and the best efforts of well-connected interests. Having overcome all these obstacles, the quiet man with a bow-tie who lived in the suburbs and never went to college died a millionaire and a hero, at least to some in the military and arms industry. As McWhirter and Elinson see it, the tragedy of Stoner’s story is that his virtues are no longer common in the nation to which he introduced the AR-15: ‘He wanted to protect the country he loved. But now, his invention is more well-known as a tool to kill innocent Americans.’

Gunreportage always seems to focus on individuals. The mind of the shooter, the terror of his victims, the anguish of those left behind, the incapable or obstructive legislators. Most books on guns in America today begin with the harrowing story of a shooting, breathlessly narrated as if it had taken place in a movie. In American Gun, this story is about the man who, on 1 October 2017, fired more than a thousand rounds into a crowd of concert-goers from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel, killing sixty people. McWhirter and Elinson treat the AR-15 – which they frequently call ‘Stoner’s gun’ – as an extension of its creator, even though Colt purchased the rights to it in 1959. (After the patent expired in 1977 other firms started production, and in the 2000s a private equity firm in New York bought up the majority of its manufacturing base.) Whether it’s a frustrated gun control advocate, a devastated parent, or a committed supporter of the National Rifle Association, every aspect of American Gun is explored through a specific character, whose function is to dramatise ‘liberal’ frustration, ‘tragic’ grief or ‘libertarian’ suspicion. This narrative strategy is appealing, with its flawed heroes, big personalities, side plots, cameos, victims and survivors, but it also imposes severe limits on McWhirter and Elinson’s account. Telling the story this way presents certain material realities of modern American life as the characteristics of individuals, rather than tendencies or structures that exist within the complex politics and culture of the contemporary United States. You can’t make sense of the AR-15 in America through individual stories alone.

Despite McWhirter and Elinson’s suggestion, the ‘core issue’ here is more than the question ‘how do we as a society keep this weapon out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have such a gun?’ or the injunction that ‘every gun designer has a responsibility to think about what the hell they’re creating’ (the words of Stoner’s long-time colleague Jim Sullivan, with which the book closes). The problem isn’t just ‘the criminal and the careless and the insane’, as Lyndon Johnson put it when signing the Gun Control Act of 1968. ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ the NRA insists. But, more precisely, American men with guns kill people. ‘What the hell’s the matter with us?’ Sullivan said when asked about the AR-15’s legacy in America. ‘There’s something wrong here.’

Guns are central to America’s mythology. In the patriotic version of its history, from an imaginary ‘revolution’ to westward conquest to cops keeping the streets safe, guns are the tools of America’s self-creation. ‘This country was born with a rifle in its hand,’ Philip Sharpe wrote in The Rifle in America (1938). ‘As a matter of fact, the rifle brought about the birth of these United States. The United States and the rifle are inseparable.’ They remain inseparable, and today that rifle is a high-tech, ‘polished lime’ semi-automatic killing machine kept in a suburban garage. That is not what Sharpe had in mind.

Andrew McKevitt’s excellent Gun Country: Gun Capitalism, Culture and Control in Cold War America provides a better account of the situation. McKevitt insists on an often neglected fact: guns are a commodity. Guns in the US, more than anywhere else in the world, are goods circulating in a mass-production, mass-consumption market. A powerful and profitable ‘gun capitalism’ was born at the end of the Second World War, when a glut of cheap surplus guns coincided with rising consumerism, anti-communist hysteria and racialised tension, especially in cities. In this perspective, the problem ultimately isn’t the guns, but the social formation in which they appeared in such numbers.

McKevitt provides some of the context that is needed to make sense of the individual stories in American Gun, in particular the way that they are embedded in the market-oriented ‘freedom’ of American gun capitalism. One of the stories has to do with the court deposition of a representative of Freedom Group, the private equity firm that controlled Bushmaster, which manufactured the AR-15 used to massacre twenty children and seven adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 (the rifle was advertised with the tagline ‘Consider Your Man Card Reissued’). Asked why Bushmaster expanded production after the shooting, Freedom Group pointed out that it was ‘one of our higher margin products’: ‘It was an awful horrific huge tragedy, but its impact on the long-term capital decisions of the business … were not a factor. We were in the business of legally making guns to legally sell to legal gun owners. So there is no other thing to do than wake up and make guns on Monday morning.’ Gun capitalism is capitalism cooked down like stock to a concentrate.

There are seventy million more privately held guns in the US – around four hundred million of them – than there are people. AR-15s comprise about 5 per cent of the total, but it is currently the best-selling rifle in the country. ‘AR folks’ are the ‘heart and soul of the NRA membership’, a former NRA executive told the Washington Post, and the organisation has made what it calls ‘America’s Gun’ its ‘number one priority’. That the rifle is now closely associated not only with mass shootings but with far-right and white supremacist movements and militias like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers does not trouble the NRA. Its core mission is the snarling, well-armed and heavily bankrolled defence of those groups’ most cherished political commitment, an ‘absolutist’ interpretation of the Second Amendment, which reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ The AR-15 has become the most potent symbol of that commitment (in the words of Kathleen Belew, an expert on the far right, it is ‘the emblematic cultural weapon’), and this is the reason politicians like Moore, Boebert and Clyde – who have each received an ‘A’ grade and considerable campaign support from the NRA – want to wear those lapel pins.

Many of those involved in the Capitol Hill ‘insurrection’ of 6 January 2021 had flags carrying images of the AR-15 and the motto ‘Come and Take It’, or ‘Molon Labe’, a Greek phrase meaning ‘Come! Take!’ which King Leonidas is supposed to have uttered when Xerxes demanded that the Spartans lay down their arms. We have now reached a point at which, even if someone could somehow pass gun control legislation in the US, and even if it only restricted assault weapons like the AR-15, implementing it seems likely to result in widespread violence. But the likelihood that any such legislation will be passed is very slim, no matter how many children die. In 1989, the Second Amendment scholar Sanford Levinson remarked that it was ‘almost impossible to imagine that the judiciary would strike down a determination by Congress that the possession of assault weapons should be denied to private citizens’. Today, it isn’t at all impossible to imagine. The US Supreme Court, which would ultimately decide the legitimacy of any new gun law, effectively endorsed a central pillar of the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment when, in District of Columbia v. Heller, it determined that the constitution does indeed grant individuals, not just ‘the people’ or members of a ‘well-regulated militia’, the right to ‘keep and bear arms’. That was in 2008; since then, the court has only moved further right.

For these and other reasons – including the difficulty of controlling the millions of AR-15s already in circulation, let alone the hundreds of millions of other guns – McKevitt, like many others, has given up on traditional gun control measures: ‘There is simply no practical way to reduce the nationwide private firearms arsenal to levels that could make a significant impact on annual gun violence death rates,’ he writes. He differs from others, though, in his view that the point of no return passed decades ago, long before the AR-15 became ‘the preferred rifle of the American consumer-citizen playacting as a citizen-soldier’. The 1960s, he argues, not the 1990s, 2000s or 2010s, was the decade that forged America’s gun culture, and in which the chance to reverse course was irretrievably lost. The 1968 Gun Control Act, passed in the wake of mass uprisings in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere, imposed some minor inconveniences, ending the sale of guns to minors and ‘mental defectives’ and making it harder for gun dealers to get licences or skimp on their record-keeping. But its central policy – limiting imports of the cheap handguns that were flowing into the US in the hundreds of thousands each year – did little to reduce supply, because it did nothing to stop the import of gun parts, or to limit domestic production. The main effect of the Act was to ignite the gun rights lobby. After that, McKevitt says, ‘there was no turning back.’ The ‘emergence of the gun control movement prompted the hardline turn of the gun rights movement – and not the other way around’. By 1980, a radicalised NRA was ready to make its first presidential endorsement, for Ronald Reagan. In 1986, the Firearms Owners Protection Act was passed, repealing or neutralising even the mild measures in the 1968 law.

American Gun leaves no stone unturned in the story of the AR-15, but does everything it can to avoid taking a political stance. Gun Country, by contrast, doesn’t shy away from politics, and ends with some proposals that McKevitt admits are a ‘pie-in-the-sky wish list’: a retreat from extremist interpretations of the Second Amendment and ‘the abolition of state violence’, including ‘the disarmament of police forces’. It is difficult to reconcile such hopes with his analysis. Abolition alone is so radical a proposal that, based on the logic of McKevitt’s own historical account, it would elicit an even more extreme reaction.

According to the Washington Post-Ipsos poll, the most commonly cited reason for owning an AR-15 today is ‘defence’ of home and family. (The second is target-shooting; the third is ‘because I can.’ As one NRA board member put it, no small part of the rifle’s appeal is that merely owning one is an ‘f-you to the left’.) Much of the advertising, and a lot of online content by or about gun advocates, focuses on a sense of being besieged, ‘on your own’, physically and socially vulnerable at moments of crisis. A video produced by the United States Concealed Carry Association featuring Colion Noir, a prominent Black gun rights activist, lists ‘Five Reasons to Own an AR-15 (Especially Now)’: ‘to defend against break-ins with multiple suspects who are trying to kill you’; ‘to defend yourself during civil unrest’; ‘to protect yourself during a natural disaster or a shit-hits-the-fan scenario’; ‘because everyone else has them, including criminals’; and ‘because you don’t trust the government.’ As Isaac Botkin, an evangelical Christian and designer at T.Rex Arms (a ‘Sixth Commandment/Second Amendment company’ in Tennessee) says in ‘Why Everyone Needs an AR-15’, a thirty-minute video that has been watched more than 3.4 million times, the ‘AR-15 can be a weapon of war and the very best platform for civilian use, at the same time’: ‘if you own a firearm, which you should, it should be an AR-15, and if you end up needing to use that firearm, which hopefully you won’t, you will want it to be an AR-15.’

It is ironic that the masculinity the AR-15 affirms for so many gun-owners seems to be accompanied by a rather unmanly vulnerability to the world. But then the AR-15’s world is saturated in a sense of foreboding. There is ceaseless talk about ‘the way the world is these days’ or ‘the direction that society is going’, emergencies – even civil wars – are always-maybe just around the corner. As the Washington Post reports of interviews with militia members, ‘they believe that something dangerous is bubbling within American society, that a conflagration is coming, even if the battle lines aren’t quite clear yet. That’s what brings them back to the woods with their rifles.’ From the perspective of the besieged or soon to be besieged, like Botkin, opponents of the AR-15 want you ‘significantly disadvantaged’ and ‘utterly dependent on somebody else’. He stresses that he’s not exaggerating at all when he says that everyone needs an AR-15: ‘I’m not just talking about military age males … I am talking about everyone, I’m talking about people who are smaller, younger, older, disabled; specifically people who may be weaker than others, I’m talking about people who need more protection. I’m talking about my mom.’

This shouldn’t be written off as a confected justification for something that can’t be justified. There is of course a masculine, often but not always white (and sometimes supremacist) version of these arguments that is cited by the likes of the Three Percenters as the basis for their ‘right’ to armed hatred, or in support of what the philosopher Chad Kautzer calls ‘militia-of-one vigilantism’. But, just as important, the emphasis on ‘defence’ and vulnerability to the vagaries of an uncertain world shows that for many, ‘gun rights are civil rights,’ as militia members told the Washington Post. An AR-15 ‘gives you your voice’. Gun politics in the US are now identity politics, and the AR-15, more than any other firearm, has become a symbol not only of consumer freedom, but of freedom of expression or even faith. ‘It will make people treat you differently if you are armed with an AR-15,’ a militia member told the Washington Post. Those who feel diminished by the political economy of American liberalism see the rifle as enabling them to be more than someone to whom history happens. This is what makes the idea of a shit-hits-the-fan moment so appealing. The AR-15 seems to provide a way to attain the independence and freedom the national mythology promises but reality denies: the chance to leave a mark on the world.

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Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

Geoff Mann states that the .223 ammunition used by most AR-15s contains ‘a bullet 0.223 inches in diameter’ (LRB, 7 March). The diameter is in fact .224 inches, the error no doubt owed to the misleading naming practices for rifle calibres: the .218 Bee, the .219 Zipper, the .220 Swift, the .221 Fireball, the .222 Remington, the .223 Remington, the .224 Valkyrie and the .225 Winchester all fire the same size bullet, .224 inches in diameter.

Vernon Shetley
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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