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

  • Deborah
  • Wendy
  • Paula
  • Gwendolyn

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 a vital good.


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.


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 who we reasonably suspect will not.


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. Advocates of banning the AR-15 often call it and similar rifles weapons of war. For example, in a 2019 New York Times op-ed, President Biden, referring to AR-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, said: We have to get these weapons of war off our streets.

  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.

    Be aware: 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. From the Washington Post:

    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.

    N. Kirkpatrick, Atthar Mirza and Manuel Canales. The Blast Effect.
  6. The view that civilians don’t need AR-15s is common among ban advocates. See, for example, this statement from the Washington Post Editorial Board: No one needs an AR-15 — or any gun tailor-made for mass shootings.

  7. Calling the AR-15 a modern sporting rifle started with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an American trade association for the firearms industry. See Modern Sporting Rifle: The Facts. For more on the history of the term, see this report from the Washington Post: The gun that divides a nation.

  8. A common refrain among opponents of banning AR-15s. For example:

    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 Lee Malcolm. 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.

    Andrew Arulanandam, NRA Spokesman. Quoted in The gun that divides a nation.

    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. From the description of a video posted by the NSSF:

    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.
  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. In 2019, 62% of gun murders were committed with handguns. In 2020, the numbers were 59% handguns, 3% rifles.

  13. US Senator Dianne Feinstein (DCA), author of the 1994 ban, has cited research that suggests “gun massacres” dropped 37% during the ban but rose 183% after.

    President Biden has said that mass shooting deaths tripled after the ban expired, 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.

  14. Axios has a list of 23 shootings: The deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history. Also see Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Various fact checkers have concluded that strong claims about the effect of banning assault weapons haven’t been backed by strong evidence:

  21. 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.

  22. See Mass shootings are rare – firearm suicides are much more common, and kill more Americans.

  23. 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.

    What are ‘red flag’ laws and how can they prevent gun violence?
  24. Two key points about red flag laws via Axios:

    • 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. How red flag gun control laws work.
  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. See California’s ‘Red Flag’ Law Utilized for 58 Threatened Mass Shootings.

  28. The CDC says that gun violence is a serious public health problem that impacts the health and safety of Americans. See Firearm Violence Prevention. Also, see One way to prevent gun violence? Treat it as a public health issue.

  29. One often cited fact is that people who suffer from mental illness are rarely violent. Only about 4% of violence in the US is attributable to mental illness.

    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%). These fact sheets offer more data:

  30. 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.

  31. From Vox:

    Economist 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. America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts.
  32. 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. For more info, see: Fact Sheet: Weak Gun Laws Are Driving Increases in Violent Crime.

  33. See The Looser a State’s Gun Laws, the More Mass Shootings It Has.

  34. In mass shootings with four or more dead that involve an assault rifle, the average number killed more than doubles, and the average number wounded increases nearly 23 fold. When high-capacity magazines are used, the dead again more than double, and there are nearly 10 times as many wounded. Source: Mass Shootings in the United States: An Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund Analysis.

  35. 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
  36. 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.

    Chris Cillizza. A striking number from a new poll on guns.
  37. 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.

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

  39. 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 the NRA: What Firearms Have “Common-Use” Protections?

  40. 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:

    Opponents of gun control argue that criminals will always have guns, regardless of attempts to ban them.

    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.
  41. The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, argues that red flag laws can prevent mass shootings without broadly infringing on the rights of all lawful gun owners.

  42. Conservative commentator David French has remarked that red flag laws simply affirm that the right to keep and bear arms is contingent upon exercising a degree of responsibility.

  43. David French, conservative proponent of red flag laws, explains:

    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.
  44. For example:

  45. Even though the US has long banned fully automatic weapons, their use continues through the illegal conversion of semi-automatic weapons to full auto. Sources:

    Also, see, as cited above, the NRA‘s statement: Why Gun Control Doesn’t Work.

  46. 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?

  47. Conservative advocates of red flag laws, such as David French, still emphasize prayer as a response to mass shootings:

    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.
  48. 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]