Is the AR-15 a “Weapon of War” That Should Be Banned?

  • Joe Biden, US President
  • Dianne Feinstein, US Senator (D-CA)
  • Washington Post Editorial Board
  • Plus 5 more pro
  • National Rifle Association
  • David French, Columnist
  • Joyce Malcolm, Law Professor
  • Plus 2 more con


Sources & Disclaimers

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  • Joe Biden, US President
  • Tammy Duckworth, US Senator (DIL)
  • Katie Porter, US Representative (DCA‐47)
  • Washington Post Editorial Board
Click highlights for notes.

The AR-15 is a weapon of war. Just add automatic fire and it’s about as lethal as rifles used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. At Newtown, Parkland, and Uvalde, victims were torn apart by AR-style assault weapons. Ban them. No civilian needs one.

  • National Shooting Sports Foundation
  • Joyce Malcolm, Law Professor
  • National Rifle Association

The AR-15 is a modern sporting rifle owned by millions of law-abiding Americans. It’s no more a “weapon of war” than other semi-automatic firearms commonly used for sport, hunting, recreation, and home defense. Besides, the last “assault weapons” ban had no clear effect on gun murders, which are mostly committed with handguns.

  • Joe Biden, US President
  • Dianne Feinstein, US Senator (DCA)
  • Everytown for Gun Safety

The federal ban did reduce mass gun murders. Since it expired in 2004, 8 of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in US history have occurred. And most of the shooters didn’t launch their attacks with handguns, shotguns, or traditional hunting rifles. An AR-15 paired with a high-capacity magazine, a deadly combination resembling a standard military-issue rifle, was their weapon of choice.

  • David French, Columnist
  • The Editor

Mass shootings, like other gun murders, usually involve handguns. And the effect of “assault weapons” bans on those shootings, as on other gun violence, is unclear and publicly exaggerated.

  • David French, Columnist
  • The Editor

An effective way to reduce not just mass murder, the rarest kind of gun death, but also suicide, the most common, is to enact red flag laws. When someone is a clear risk to themself or others, their access to guns can be blocked temporarily following a civil court hearing. The law can step in before anyone gets hurt or arrested, and the person under protective order can get life-saving mental healthcare.

  • Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD
  • Center for American Progress
  • The Editor

Red flag laws have prevented suicides, possibly even some mass shootings, both of which are a public health issue. All gun violence is. But mental illness isn’t the primary cause.

  • Center for American Progress
  • Everytown for Gun Safety
  • The Editor

It’s guns. With more guns comes more deaths. Where gun laws are tighter, gun deaths are fewer. Where they’re looser, the deaths are greater, and the rate of mass shootings rises. When the shooters wield assault rifles or high-capacity magazines, the dead and wounded multiply.

  • Katie Porter, US Representative (DCA‐47)
  • The Editor

More lost lives, more broken bodies, more scarred psyches amid grieving communities. These increasingly frequent and fatal public massacres are not a necessary evil, because empowering civilians to kill en masse is not any sort of good.

  • National Rifle Association

Americans have a right to self-defense. Semi-automatic weapons, from handguns to rifles, are in common use. Criminal attackers have them, so law-abiding civilians need them.

  • The Heritage Foundation
  • David French, Columnist

Nearly all who legally own AR-15s or magazines over 10 rounds pose no threat to the public. Red flag laws respect their right to bear arms but also recognize their responsibility to use them lawfully. Don’t disarm the many who obey the law. Disarm the few we reasonably suspect will not.

  • David French, Columnist
  • National Rifle Association

Will some dangerous individuals slip past these safeguards? Yes, just as they’ll evade gun bans. But we must prefer the more promising, bipartisan approach. And when evil strikes, we must pray and care for the victims and their families and keep striving to find and treat all the would-be attackers we can.


  1. First developed in the 1950s for the US military by ArmaLite, the AR-15 (where AR stands for ArmaLite Rifle) is not a single rifle. It’s a rifle family, style, or platform based on the Colt AR-15, a semi-automatic civilian version of the military-issue M16. Sources:

  2. [The 2019 Dayton shooter] was … able to massacre nine people and injure more than two dozen others because he carried an AR-style weapon with a magazine capable of holding 100 rounds. We have to get these weapons of war off our streets. [internal links omitted]

    President Joe Biden. Joe Biden: Banning Assault Weapons Works

    The ArmaLite Rifle 15 – and the semi-auto successors it spawned – are weapons of war.

    Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth: Weapons of War Should be Banned, Not be Marketed or Sold to Untrained Civilians

    [T]he gruesome reality of what an AR-15 can wreak poses an argument in itself: There is no excuse for the widespread availability of these weapons of war.

    Washington Post Editorial Board No one needs an AR-15 — or any gun tailor-made for mass shootings
  3. The M16 was used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The M4 was used in the latter two wars. Both of these standard-issue military rifles allow automatic or burst fire. The AR-15 is built for semi-automatic fire only. Here’s an explanation from Spec Ops Magazine:

    [T]he AR-15 is a semi-automatic civilian version of the M16 rifle. The M4, on the other hand, is a shorter and more compact version of the M16.

    Eric Sof. AR15, M4, M16: Decoding the Differences

    Other gun-oriented publications also reduce the difference between the AR-15 and the M16/M4 to automatic fire. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in Staples v. US, appears to do the same: The AR-15 is the civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle, and is, unless modified, a semiautomatic weapon.

  4. These three cities are the locations of three high profile school mass shootings. Here are the school names, years, and number dead:

    • Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012, 27)
    • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (2018, 17)
    • Robb Elementary School (2022, 22).

    An AR-15 was used in all three shootings. Since 2012, over half of the 17 deadliest mass shootings in the US involved an AR-15, according to the Washington Post: The gun that divides a nation.

    Important: There’s no one definition of mass shooting. The number killed (often 4 or more), the setting (sometimes only public, like a school or mall, sometimes not), and other stipulations may vary. Where needed in these notes, check the linked sources to see exactly what’s meant by mass shooting.

  5. The AR-15 fires bullets at such a high velocity — often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession — that it can eviscerate multiple people in seconds. A single bullet lands with a shock wave intense enough to blow apart a skull and demolish vital organs. The impact is even more acute on the compact body of a small child.

    Nick Kirkpatrick, JournalistNick Kirkpatrick, et al. The Blast Effect
  6. I beg you to question your assumptions about whether weaponry designed for war should be marketed and sold to civilians.

    Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth: Weapons of War Should be Banned, Not be Marketed or Sold to Untrained Civilians

    Weapons designed to shoot and kill en masse have no place among civilians. We can and must save lives by banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

    Rep. Katie Porter (DCA‐47) @RepKatiePorter

    See also this article (noted above) from the Washington Post Editorial Board: No one needs an AR-15 — or any gun tailor-made for mass shootings.

  7. The term modern sporting rifle, aka MSR, was coined to describe today’s very popular semi-automatic rifle designs, including the AR-15 and similar variants … [G]roups wanting to ban these rifles have for years purposely spread misinformation about them to aid their cause, including using the terms assault rifle and weapons of war.

    National Shooting Sports Foundation Modern Sporting Rifle: The Facts

    For more on the history of the term modern sporting rifle, see this report from the Washington Post: The gun that divides a nation.

  8. The AR-15 … is not a weapon of war as the Democrats keep asserting. It is not an automatic weapon but the most popular hunting rifle in the country owned by MILLIONS of law-abiding Americans.

    Joyce Malcolm, Law Professor Quoted in Proposed gun control measures lack empirical evidence they reduce crimes, experts say

    This firearm [the AR-15] is lawfully owned by millions of Americans — used in shooting competitions, for recreational purposes, hunting and home protection.

    National Rifle AssociationAndrew Arulanandam, NRA Spokesman. Quoted in The gun that divides a nation

    [Modern sporting rifles] have been utilized by law-abiding Americans since the 1960’s.

    National Shooting Sports Foundation. Modern Sporting Rifle: The Facts

    As many as 25 million Americans own upwards of 44 million AR-15s, according to BBC News: AR-15: The lethal weapon at heart of US gun debate.

  9. Semi-automatic firearms, including modern sporting rifles like the AR-15, account for approximately 70% of all firearms, and yet … we keep hearing the same rhetoric from anti-gun politicians, celebrities and the media elite. Weapons of war is their new catchphrase.

    National Shooting Sports Foundation. Why the AR-15 is a Civilian Firearm and NOT a Weapon of War or an Assault Rifle [Video]
  10. A federal assault weapons ban was enacted in 1994 but was allowed to expire in 2004. The federal law’s definition explicitly named the Colt AR-15, among other weapons. Critics of that ban and similar legislation insist that only fully automatic rifles are rightly called assault weapons or assault rifles.

  11. A 1997 study commissioned by the Department of Justice looked at the effects of the 1994 federal ban during its first two years. The authors found no clear impact on gun violence. A 2017 review of multiple studies also found no significant evidence that the 1994 ban decreased gun murders.

  12. The NRA likes to say the 1994 federal Assault Weapons Ban didn’t work, but it did work. The data is clear: there were fewer mass shootings while the Assault Weapons Ban was in effect and significantly more after it expired. Gun massacres of six or more killed decreased by 37 percent for the decade the ban was active, then shot up 183 percent during the decade following its expiration.

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Quoted in Studies: Gun Massacre Deaths Dropped During Assault Weapons Ban, Increased After Expiration

    When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down. When the law expired, mass shootings tripled.

    President Joe Biden. Remarks: Joe Biden Addresses the Mass Shooting at Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas – May 24, 2022

    Feinstein authored the 1994 ban and Biden supported it, both as US Senators. President Biden’s claim that mass shooting deaths tripled after the ban expired is based on a study that concludes such deaths were 70% less likely while the ban was in effect. For analysis, see What research shows on the effectiveness of gun-control laws.

  13. In 5 of the 8 post-2004 mass shootings referenced above, the shooter used an AR-style rifle equipped with a high-capacity (also called large-capacity) magazine. Sources:

    In 1 of the 8, the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, the shooter used high-capacity magazines and a Sig MCX semi-automatic rifle, which critics of the AR-15 also consider an assault weapon.

  14. Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are frequently used in mass shootings, resulting in more deaths and injuries.

    Everytown for Gun Safety Fact Sheet: Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines

    A high- or large-capacity magazine usually refers to a magazine that holds over 10 rounds. Various mass shooters with AR-15s have used 30 round magazines, which now come standard with many AR-15s. In US mass shootings from 2015 to 2022, when high-capacity magazines were involved five times as many people were shot, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety: Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines.

  15. As noted above, the AR-15 is basically a semi-automatic version of a standard military-issue M16 or M4 (though the M4 is more compact). The M4 comes equipped with 30-round magazines, which are high-capacity for an AR-15. See Discovering the Weapons Used in Basic. Also, see A guide to the US military guns most often lost or stolen.

  16. [The] vast majority of mass shooters use handguns instead of these so-called assault rifle-type weapons or assault weapons.

    David French, Columnist Interviewed in Red flag laws, not gun control, are the way to stop mass shootings, proponent

    In about 70% of mass public shootings after 1992, the shooter(s) sole or primary weapons were semi-automatic handguns, according to the Washington Post: What research shows on the effectiveness of gun-control laws.

  17. A 2023 RAND review of multiple studies found inconclusive evidence that state or federal assault weapons bans impact mass shootings. The review also found limited evidence that high-capacity magazine bans decrease mass shootings.

  18. Mass shooting deaths made up less than 1% of all gun murders from 1995 to 2016, and mass public shootings make up less than 1% of all gun deaths each year, according to the U.S. Concealed Carry Association: Mass Shootings Facts and Fiction.

    Keep in mind that mass shooting statistics depend on how mass shooting is defined. Under any accepted definition, mass shootings remain rare compared to other gun murders, according to Pew Research: What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.

  19. [O]ur nation’s gun control laws are much less effective at addressing…suicides and mass killings … But…a new idea has emerged, one that’s directly designed to address…gaps in our mental health system and is tied to patterns we’ve seen in mass shootings. It’s the red flag law … Dear legislatures, pass red flag laws.

    David French. Pass and Enforce Red Flag Laws. Now.
  20. In 32% of mass shootings with at least four deaths, the shooter showed dangerous warning signs before the shooting, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. Also, according to the University of California, Davis:

    Research has found that in about 80% of cases, people who commit mass shootings or suicide make their intentions known in advance to family members or friends or via social media.

    University of California, Davis, Health Services, Public Affairs. What are ‘red flag’ laws and how can they prevent gun violence?
    • Most requests come from family members who are fearful of a loved one showing warning signs of violence.
    • If a judge deems an individual dangerous, law enforcement is permitted to take away all of the individuals’ firearms for a period of time, during which the individual is also not allowed to buy or sell guns, per WAMU.
    Erin Doherty, Journalist How red flag gun control laws work.
  21. A study of the effects of Connecticut’s red flag law, adopted in 1999, suggests it sometimes serves as a portal to needed mental health treatment for individuals in crisis. In a separate study examining the mental health of mass shooters, researchers found that 28 of 35 (from a database of 115) had untreated mental illness.

    Prominent critics of assault weapons bans and other firearm restrictions commonly attribute mass shootings to mental illness (or mental health challenges or issues). For example:

    In a 2022 nationwide poll, when asked what would do a lot to help prevent mass shootings, the top choice among Republicans was better mental health screening/treatment, which outranked more police, more religion, and more law-abiding citizens who carry guns.

  22. With the enactment of red flag laws, Connecticut saw a 14% drop in gun suicides, and Indiana saw a 7.5% drop, according to research cited by Everytown for Gun Safety: Extreme Risk Laws Save Lives.

    However, the evidence that red flag laws reduce gun suicides appears mixed, according to a CNN fact check of an April 2021 statement by President Biden. As CNN notes, a research review by RAND found inconclusive evidence that red flag laws impact gun suicides. Recall that another RAND meta-analysis, cited above, said the same thing about evidence for a relationship between assault weapons bans and mass shootings.

  23. It is time again to treat this epidemic, reduce our rates and stay with it. We’ve done it before [under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban].

    Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD Quoted in One way to prevent gun violence? Treat it as a public health issue

    The CDC says that gun violence is a serious public health problem that impacts the health and safety of Americans. See Firearm Violence Prevention.

  24. The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent … In fact, studies show that mental illness contributes to only about 4% of all violence, and the contribution to gun violence is even lower. [internal links omitted]

    National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), California The Truth About Mental Health and Gun Violence

    Despite many conservative politicians’ and the NRA’s frequent invocation of mental illness, little evidence exists to suggest that mental illness is to blame for U.S. mass shootings.

    Center for American ProgressAllison Jordan, Center for American Progress. Debunking Myths the Gun Lobby Perpetuates Following Mass Shootings

    A review of several hundred mass shootings found the shooters had a lower rate of severe mental illness (8%) compared to the general population (11%). The rate of less severe mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, was about the same as people in general (25%). Also see The Facts on Mental Illness and Mass Shootings

  25. States with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of gun deaths. Developed countries with more guns have more gun deaths. The US has the most guns and gun deaths by far. See America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts.

  26. [E]conomist Richard Florida…found that…more mental illness didn’t correlate with more gun deaths … States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths … A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries…found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence.

    German Lopez, Journalist America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts.
  27. States that received an F grade based on the strength of their gun laws—according to the latest scorecard from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence—saw the highest homicide rates…

    Nick Wilson, Center for American Progress. Fact Sheet: Weak Gun Laws Are Driving Increases in Violent Crime

    States with the highest rates of gun death (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wyoming) all have gun laws that get an F rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

  28. Mass shooting incidents with four or more people killed where the shooter used an assault rifle resulted in an average of 2.3 times more people killed and 22.7 times more people wounded … [I]ncidents involving high-capacity magazines (HCMs) resulted in 2.5 times as many people killed and nearly 10 times as many total casualties…

    Everytown for Gun Safety. Mass Shootings in the United States: An Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund Analysis
  29. Below is a pair of charts, via The Guardian, that cover US mass shootings from 1982 to 2021.

    There were more mass shootings in the past five years than in any other half-decade going back to 1966
    Mass shootings have become increasingly more deadly
  30. In a 2022 national poll, nearly half (44%) of Republicans agreed that mass shootings are something Americans have to accept as part of a free society. A CNN analyst responded:

    Consider what those Republicans are saying: There is no policy – or cultural – solution to the problem of mass shootings. Instead, it is a necessary evil of living in a free society. This is, of course, utter bunk.

    Chris Cillizza, Journalist A striking number from a new poll on guns.
  31. Rep. Katie Porter (DCA-47) tweeted a similar remark:

    Weapons designed to shoot and kill en masse have no place among civilians. We can and must save lives by banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

    Rep. Katie Porter (DCA‐47) @RepKatiePorter
  32. [T]he inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right.

    Justice Antonin Scalia. District of Columbia v. Heller

    In 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a natural right of self-defense.

  33. The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Heller says the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms in common use, but not weapons that are dangerous and unusual. The Court has not applied these protections to AR-15s. However, at least three sitting Justices—Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh—appear inclined to do so, according to attorney Stephen Halbrook. Halbrook also says:

    Which arms are in common use is established by what Americans acquire in a free market … [M]any Americans prefer long guns [which includes AR-15s] for self-defense and other lawful purposes.

    Stephen Halbrook. What Firearms Have “Common-Use” Protections?
  34. Criminals, by definition, do not obey the law. Gun control laws only affect law-abiding people who go through legal avenues to obtain firearms.

    NRAILA. Why Gun Control Doesn’t Work.

    A 2023 federal report on guns used in crimes found that many legally purchased guns end up in the hands of criminals, whether through theft or straw purchases. The report also documents a rapid rise in ghost guns—privately made, untraceable firearms that are often semi-automatic pistols but can also be AR-15s. Sources:

  35. Unlike other commonly proposed gun control measures, red-flag laws could have been used to prevent many high-profile mass public shootings without broadly infringing on the rights of all lawful gun owners.

    The Heritage FoundationAmy Swearer, The Heritage Foundation. Answers to Common Questions About “Red Flag” Gun Laws
  36. [W]hat red flag laws do is they say, your right to keep and bear arms is contingent upon exercising a degree of responsibility.

    David French. Interviewed in Red flag laws, not gun control, are the way to stop mass shootings, proponent says
  37. You’re talking about taking a measure with red flag laws that’s targeted specifically at the conduct and the fact patterns of mass shootings versus imposing a ban on a weapon that millions of people use lawfully … It seems to me that if we’re wanting to really target mass shootings, we would – should go where the evidence leads us.

    David French. Interviewed in Red flag laws, not gun control, are the way to stop mass shootings, proponent says
  38. [I]f you want to do something, rather than focus your energies on something that has not been proven to deal with the mass shooting threat, that’s extraordinarily difficult to pass under the best of circumstances, [concentrate] on something that is targeted at the mass shooting threat, that has bipartisan support, has been implemented in many, many jurisdictions.

    David French. Interviewed in Red flag laws, not gun control, are the way to stop mass shootings, proponent says

    Federal incentives for state red flag laws were included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law in 2022. As of 2023, red flag laws have been enacted in 19 states, both red and blue. In contrast, assault weapons bans are in effect in only 10 states, all blue.

    Polling shows that large majorities of Republicans (70%) and Democrats (85%) support red flag laws. However, a wide gap exists between the two parties on assault weapons bans, with only 37% of Republicans in favor, compared to 85% of Democrats. Source: Just How Far Apart Are The Two Parties On Gun Control?

  39. We should pray for the victims and their families. Pray for comfort. They are enduring unimaginable pain. Pray for those who treat them and care for them.

    David French. Pass and Enforce Red Flag Laws. Now.
  40. Although they disagree on the value of assault weapons bans, roughly equal majorities of Republicans (60%) and Democrats (61%) say better mental health screening/treatment would help prevent mass shootings, according to a 2022 poll. The NRA agrees (though it opposes red flag laws):

    America does have a critical mental health crisis … We must find a way to reach these people before they hurt themselves or others. And, we must fund places for these people to find refuge and treatment.

    NRA. NRA Statement In Response To Biden’s Address. [June 2022, following the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings]