The aesthetic of the AR-15: Shooting did not give me an erection or PTSD, but it did show me more than I anticipated | The Monthly

Shooting did not give me an erection or PTSD, but it did show me more than I anticipated


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

August 1, 2018

The aesthetic of the AR-15

By Richard Cooke
Shooting did not give me an erection or PTSD, but it did show me more than I anticipated

The expression “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a great American cliché, old enough to have seeded many variants. One features in a National Rifle Association ad, starring Stephen Willeford, who interrupted a mass shooting at a church. “It’s the heart, not the gun,” he says, and he is proof: he was carrying the same gun as the shooter, an AR-15. This is not much of a coincidence – there are so many AR-15s in America that their total number is hard to estimate, but reckoned at between five and ten million. The gun itself, the ad suggests, did not make anyone do anything. Whatever its intention, this proposition is not quite as ludicrous as it first appears. After firing an AR-15 myself, I began thinking about it in a different way.

The AR-15 is now notorious – the weapon of choice for mass shooters – and handling one is a bit like meeting a celebrity: the same surprise it looks so small in real life; the same sensation that my expectations hadn’t been met, though I wasn’t exactly sure how. I won’t name the US shooting range where this happened – apart from some nods to state gun law, it could have been any place where paper targets are shot at indoors.

If you’ve never been to a gun range, it is surprisingly like a bowling alley, right down to the rain-stained brutalist exterior, the lanes, the drink machines and the discount coupons, over-the-counter hires, couples on dates, and merch for the more serious. There are even kids, five or six years old, watching as their parents open fire.

“There is no age limit here, as long as they’re accompanied by a 21-year-old,” the duty manager told me, and that’s the juxtaposition that non-Americans find so different: the mismatch between the trappings of everyday life and the present potential for violent death. At first I thought it was dealt with by a kind of naivety, by separating death and guns. To a regular shooter, fear at a gun range must seem as ridiculous as fretting about car accidents at an Avis counter. But that analogy between guns and cars as life-threatening hazards, while often made, never really works, and while the relationship between shooting guns and shooting guns at people to kill them is indirect, it is not absent. Those paper targets are shaped like people, not tin cans, and the red on the bullseye still represents a human heart.

After scanning my Groupons, the guy behind the counter asked if I was alone. Some gun ranges won’t rent firearms to solo shooters because of suicides. These self-shootings are uncommon but not unknown (one internet post I’d seen called them “rude”), and the attendant’s mild concern, I realised, was not concern for me at all, but worry that I might wind up being a clean-up on aisle three. I must have looked sufficiently upbeat. I expected some safety theatre – a class of don’ts or a bad instructional video – but five minutes later I had in my hand a little plastic carrier, which held a set of safety glasses, a box of ammunition and a Glock 17 pistol.

“Western man, especially the Western critic, still finds it very hard to go into print and say: ‘I recommend you to go and see this because it gave me an erection,’” the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, and there’s a similar misgiving about writing that guns are fun (it’s interesting that the Hemingway-style gun-slinging writer has now almost disappeared). You can also go too far the other way: when the New York Daily News writer Gersh Kuntzman said that shooting an AR had given him PTSD, he unlocked the peak hate-mail achievement of his 30-year career. Right-wingers mocked his effeminacy, while left-wingers thought he had trivialised PTSD.

I didn’t expect shooting would give me an erection or PTSD. In my experience, immersive research produces slow-burn insight more often than eureka moments, so this was a surprise: picking up a loaded gun in America is an epiphany. Not because it made me feel like a bigger or smaller man, but because it showed just how much trust is involved.

America is not a high-trust society – it is polite, but suspicious, sometimes to the point of paranoia. Public space is often punitive (lethally so for people of colour), and the searching worry about crime is severe enough that waiting too long at a coffee shop or letting children play unsupervised in a park can become police matters. If you’re white, this sensation is more cloying than oppressive, but still very noticeable.

That disappeared with a Glock in my hand. The government was entrusting me with a firearm, thanks to the Second Amendment, not in spite of a fear that I might fire it at the police, but because one day I might need to (at least in theory). The business owner was entrusting me with a gun, the manager was entrusting me with a gun. Most importantly, so too were the other shooters.

I had encountered the phrase “responsible gun owners” countless times without a simple realisation that was now impossible to miss: when you’re at a gun range, the stranger standing next to you can kill you any time they like, and you can kill them. If you’re unlucky, this can happen by accident, not just intent. You’d better believe everyone is responsible. I have not experienced many bonds of trust more intimate, and this was a one-off trip. Repeated, it creates a communion stronger than church.

A police officer was practising his quick-draws (one of the range staff was a moonlighting officer as well), and I shot next to him. I’d taken the pistol to warm up, thinking it would be easier, which it was not. The range was hot, and even with ear protection the Glock was so loud it was hard not to flinch before pulling the trigger. My eye protection fogged with sweat, but I finished the box of 9mm rounds at least able to load, aim and fire.

There was a different man behind the counter this time, college-aged with piercings. “You’ll find the AR a lot easier,” he said, “and a lot more fun. It’s more stable and the technique is easier.” Then he handed me a black plastic case perhaps a metre long, and we took it into a mocked-up training lane in the lobby to take a look.

An AR-15 is hard to describe, not just because it is nondescript (you know what it looks like) but because it is made from such contested material. Even the most fundamental words used to describe it are debated: “firearm” sounds straightforward, but legally only one part of an AR is a gun, and that is the small section with the trigger and handle called the lower receiver. The other pieces can, by law, be sent directly to your home, and it is even legal to make the lower receiver yourself, as long as you don’t sell it.

The AR-15 is sometimes called a “long gun”, or an “assault rifle”, though some gun rights activists insist there is no such thing as an assault rifle. Is it a “military-style weapon”? It fires only one round at a time, and military rifles are usually fully automatic. Members of the military don’t object to this description though, and the army-issue M-16, when fired in a semiautomatic mode, is functionally and tactically almost identical to an AR.

Calling an AR a “platform” would be accurate: it is off-patent, has countless manufacturers (who call it a “modern sporting rifle”), and can be built and customised piece by piece, out of thousands of after-market parts. Wired magazine called it a “gadget”, and it has been compared to Lego, gaming computers, and even Barbie dolls in its versatility.

The NRA calls it simply “America’s rifle”, partly to supersede the controversy over what AR stands for (it stands for ArmaLite, not assault rifle). Calling an AR a “black rifle” would be very accurate, and I think captures one of the key components in what an AR really is, which is an aesthetic.

Another reason the car analogy falls down: a civilian, semiautomatic version of the AR-15 has existed since 1963, when it was called the Model R6000 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter Rifle. Alterations in that time have been largely cosmetic (though difference in the barrel twist has changed its velocity). What model of sedan has been sold unchanged for 55 years? The NRA is right that the AR-15 is a constant, a control. It is the heart, and not the gun.

I was conscious that the model I was about to shoot, the Smith & Wesson M&P15X, had been used in several mass shootings, most recently in Parkland. The fact I knew this, and knew the names of the shooters, felt disturbingly like a celebrity endorsement. But I also knew that ARs were rarely used in other kinds of murders. Most murders in America are committed with handguns. Fists are a more common murder weapon than AR-15s, though less effective. Some states, like Maryland, have no record of a single killing with an AR-15. This is why many states make it harder to obtain handguns than black rifles.

All this means is that gun violence is not double-entry bookkeeping. It cannot be understood by actuarial tables. If you own a gun, you are much more likely to shoot your partner or yourself with it than an intruder. These odds fall if you are a woman, or if you are older. The ratio of guns to gun deaths is not constant, and the ratio of mass shootings to AR-15s is not constant either. But America has more gun deaths because it has more guns, that we can be sure of.

No AR-15 or AR-15 analogue was used in a mass shooting before 1984. That year it was used in a school shooting by a man called Tyrone Mitchell. It was not the kind of school shooting we see now, though. Mitchell was African American, already 28, and had grown up in the Jonestown cult. His family had died at the mass suicide event in Guyana, and this seemed to have precipitated a breakdown, and in the massacre he killed two and injured twelve, before shooting himself with a shotgun. AR shootings were intermittent for many years; then Bill Clinton introduced a federal assault weapons ban.

There’s a lot of conjecture about whether this ban did anything to reduce American massacres. If it did not, there is a good reason: the thrust of the ban was aesthetic. There is another fascinating control group here – a firearm called the Ruger Mini-14. It fires the same ammunition as the AR, it can carry high-capacity magazines, and its muzzle velocity is almost the same. But it was never subject to the assault weapons ban, because it has a rifle-style rather than pistol-style handle, and no bayonet mount. These make no difference to its ability to shoot people (and it has been used in a mass shooting in America). The Ruger is wood and chrome, and patterned like a hunting rifle. It remained legal only because it looked less menacing.

The AR did look menacing, and mine was unadorned. On the rifle lanes, almost everyone else was shooting one as well, and they were all tricked up with scopes, tripods, paint jobs, and the other paraphernalia of special forces, sometimes mockingly called “tacti-cool”. It’s easy to underappreciate just how nerdy gun culture is. Shooting is often coupled with fishing, and if you’ve fished you recognise immediately the attention to minutiae, the mutual mansplaining, the vast folk knowledge of arcane and pointless detail. As a beginner and stranger, the problem wouldn’t be getting advice. It would be getting the advice to stop.

There was a military guy at the range, but he had the air of a role-playing dungeon master, and his student, firing his AR in the prone position, was a cross-eyed nebbish. He had a higher capacity magazine, harder to get here, and as we yelled our conversation over the earmuffs he actually called it a “party stick”. Jesus. A lot is made of the fact that AR owners are usually white guys in their 50s who own more than one. While the racial anxiety component is real, these are also the kind of people who own model trains and tie trout flies and make furniture shaped like tree trunks. Among other things, I was about to participate in a boring hobby.

I settled my nerves, took the plastic flag out of the chamber, loaded the magazine, pulled back the charging handle, dropped the bolt and set the safety (which I must have checked at least 10 times already) to FIRE. Then I pulled the trigger.

“Guns are one of the primary avenues by which ordinary Americans experience beauty,” Stephen Marche wrote in Esquire, though I’m not sure I would call this beautiful. It was ergonomic, though, engineered. It was a synergy between intent, design and result. It was much easier than the Glock, and seemed, impossibly, somehow quieter as well, because it was more controlled. It’s interesting that even as a novice you can tell a bad gun – this one had a sticky bolt – and after getting two jams that spooked me, I got a substitute. Better. By the end of the session I was hitting centre of the target every time, and congratulated myself by picking up a handful of hot brass.

The guy next to me had a brand new shotgun, a 12-gauge bullpup. It was a gift from his brother, and I stopped to watch him fire it. It was a hunting gun, shooting solid slugs, and it was so powerful I could feel the great roaring woolf of fire and energy coming from its muzzle, though I stood several feet behind it. Sometimes, the staff told me, someone would bring in a gun so powerful its muzzle blast alone would shred the neighbouring target. Something about proximity to the shotgun’s force was a bit depressing. It wasn’t that it was powerful, it was that it was so much more powerful than any creative force I had experienced close-up. It was stronger than love. The silence between shots felt loud.

It was also very tacti-cool. It didn’t look like something to shoot a deer with, unless the deer was heavily armed and holed up in an Abbottabad compound. This was new. The indoor range had started to lose customers to nearby outdoor ranges, not only because it was summer; they wanted to shoot armour-piercing rounds that would punch through the concrete walls and fly out into the parking lot. There is a stunning indicator of just how recent this development is. The biggest gun industry trade show in America is called SHOT, and as recently as 2004, AR-15 makers were banned by SHOT’s organisers from displaying any “tactical” imagery there, not for any legal reason, but for reasons of taste. AR-15s had to look like hunting guns. Unbanned, this style of display then became the most popular, and now hunting guns look tactical instead.

The War on Terror is a big part of why. It turned America’s ever-present obsession with the military into something cultish. The assault weapons ban was rescinded, and the AR-15 became available again, this time not only as a collector’s item that could be re-banned at any time (perhaps the most powerful and unintentional “for a limited time only” sales offer in history) but also as a sacrament. That’s why I was here, talking to a half-stoned college dropout with man bangs, and we were talking about supercavitating ammunition.

Wound ballistics is prime real estate for the banality of evil, and I had just read a 10,000-word article about the history of the .223 calibre (a rollercoaster of bureaucratic inertia and military and scientific factionalism, as it happens), so I was keeping up. More lethal bullets were more humane, he was saying. Just like killing an animal, you wanted to kill a human instantly, that way they wouldn’t suffer. He was sincere. Not a bad guy, and the talk didn’t make me think of children cowering behind desks or anything. It was an outlier risk, nothing to do with what was happening here, or the people present. The point of a civilian owning an AR-15 was owning an AR-15. Still, something had changed. Gone wrong, you could say. Something at the heart of things.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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