Under the Black Flag

A banner featuring an AR-15 hangs outside a gift shop on May 11, 2018, near Cherokee, North Carolina. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

The Washington Post gets one thing—if only one thing—right when it comes to the AR-pattern rifle: It is a symbol, and a powerful one. 

We should try to understand it in those terms.

In a report published Monday—a generally incompetent one; more on that below—the Post forwards the claim that the AR-type rifle is “overkill for home defense,” which is not really true (and certainly is not a widely held opinion among knowledgeable shooters). But it is overkill for the particular kind of enormity with which the rifle is associated in the minds of many people: massacres such as the one perpetrated Monday at a Presbyterian school in Nashville, Tennessee, in which three 9-year-olds and three unarmed adults were murdered. That is a crime that can be committed with an ordinary revolver, but the role of the black rifle is cultural and aesthetic. 

As I have noted here on previous occasions, the AR-type rifle isn’t particularly powerful. It is generally chambered for the 5.56mm NATO cartridge, which is much less powerful than the rounds fired by many common hunting rifles. (The 5.56mm cartridge is, in fact, too small to legally hunt deer with in some states.) Nor is the AR unusual in its rate of fire (it is semiautomatic, meaning that it fires once per pull of the trigger). And it is not unique in its capacity to be outfitted with 30- or 50-round (or 100-round) magazines that can be quickly replaced. Almost any semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a detachable magazine (meaning most firearms) can be similarly outfitted. It is, functionally speaking, just another gun. 

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