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The gun at the heart of the assault weapons debate

National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre is set to appear Wednesday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Internet picture of a Bushmaster .223 caliber Remington automatic weapon, similar to the one found with a 30 round magazine in Sandy Hook Elementary School killer Adam Lanza's car at the school in Newtown, Connecticut. (Rex Features via AP Images)
Internet picture of a Bushmaster .223 caliber Remington automatic weapon, similar to the one found with a 30 round magazine in Sandy Hook Elementary School...

National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre is set to appear Wednesday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His testimony, released Tuesday, repeats the same tired ideas that he has already articulated and that much of the nation has already rejected, including putting armed guards or police in schools. And he makes a pragmatic-sounding case for avoiding action, saying we all need “to be honest about what works–and what doesn’t work.”

LaPierre also defends military-style semi-automatic weapons, which gun-control backers in Congress recently introduced legislation to ban. “Semi-automatic firearms have been around for over 100 years,” he tells lawmakers. “They are among the most popular guns made for hunting, target shooting and self-defense.”

The firearm at the heart of the “assault weapons” debate is a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. A Bushmaster AR-15 rifle was used last month in  the Newtown, Conn. shootings that killed 27. Ten days later in Webster, New York, a man set to fire to his house and used a Bushmaster AR-15 to kill two responding firefighters before killing himself. An AR-15 was also used in last summer’s shooting at a Batman movie theater premiere in Aurora, Colo., and a decade ago in and around Washington by the D.C. sniper.

It’s less suited for hunting and home defense, although some people do use it for both purposes, and more ideally suited for other, more complex scenarios ranging from defending against rioters and looters, participating in the demanding sport of High Power target shooting, or arming oneself to deter police or military forces in the case of a citizens’ insurrection. The popularity of Bushmaster rifles also makes them excellent money-makers for gun manufacturers, too.

Designed as a civilian version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle, issued to American soldiers since the Vietnam war, the AR-15 is named after the original manufacturer, Armalite; the AR does not refer to “assault rifle,” as some have erroneously suggested. The same weapon did appear, however, in the Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons, until pressure from the NRA and gun manufacturers demanded that the author change the digest’s title for his next edition to a Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Tactical Rifles.

Gun-rights supporters have rushed to defend the weapon. In a piece titled “The AR-15: The Gun Liberals Love to Hate,” NRA president David Keene wrote online last month that gun-banning politicians and journalists don’t “understand the nature of the firearms they would ban, their popularity or legitimate uses.”

Some people do use a Bushmaster AR-15 to hunt. But most Bushmaster AR-15’s fire small, but high-powered rounds that can make it difficult to stop a deer or other big game without multiple shots. Only in the past decade or so have AR-15 rifles have become good enough to match the accuracy of most other hunting rifles, and many hunters still seem divided over what some derisively call “black guns.” A few years ago, Field & Stream posed the question in an online forum, Are assault rifles for hunting? One young, but experienced hunter searching for middle ground, wrote:

“I am NOT ‘buying into’ liberal media’s ideas. I don’t mind one bit if someone wants to hunt with a[n] AR-15. I just have a personal opinion about them and their place in hunting,” wrote longliner13, describing himself as a young man and avid hunter. “If you enjoy hunting with an assault rifle, great. Do it. I have myself. But I just have the strong opinion that the AR-15 is not necessary in the field.”

What about for home defense? Most experts, along with many others, recommend keeping either a handgun or shotgun over any other long rifle in a house or apartment. The tight confines of any residence make it difficult to wield a long rifle. And if a long gun were still preferred, a shotgun is both easier to aim and more effective at short-range. While the Bushmaster’s high-powered, small rounds could end up penetrating walls and putting family members or neighbors at risk.

Outside the home, however, over more open ground, a Bushmaster AR-15 might be ideal for self-defense. Many gun-rights activists still point to a 1992 video on YouTube of ethnic Korean store owners and other men on the rooftop of their retail business to defend against looters during the riots over the Rodney King police beating trial. Although the store’s defenders appear to have been armed with only rifles and shotguns, there is no doubt that a Bushmaster rifle capable of firing up to 45 rounds a minute would be an effective deterrent against multiple assailants in a riot or other lawless scenario.

There is one area, however, where a military-designed, semi-automatic rifle like the Bushmaster AR-15 does clearly excel. High Power Competition target shooting is now more common than traditional benchrest shooting competitions “by a huge margin,” according to one expert and blogger. “[T]here are no mechanical crutches in High Power—your arms and body must support the full weight of the rifle as you engage the target from a variety of positions,” placing “a premium on good eyesight, training, and overall fitness.”

The Bushmaster AR-15 is among the weapons of choice for High Power Competition. Shooters fire from standing, sitting, kneeling and prone positions, firing up to 20 rounds at a time. Competitions organized by the NRA have helped make High Power shooting competitions a fast growing sport. The proposed legislation to ban many military-style semi-automatic rifles and limit high capacity magazines announced last week by California Sen. Feinstein would at least alter, if not threaten the future of this expanding field of American gun culture.

Why else might someone need a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle? Perhaps so armed citizens might one day deter, if not overthrow a future tyrannical government. This may sound like rhetoric, but it has been the position of modern NRA leaders and other Second Amendment activists for years. “They’re God-given freedoms. They belong to us as our birthright. No government ever gave them to us and no government can ever take them away,” said NRA chief LaPierre last week in Reno.

Since gun control has come under debate in the wake of the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting, similar views have flooded the Internet. “Hunting is a BI-PRODUCT of #2ndAmendment. The #RightToBearArms is TO DEFEND Self, Family & #USA from MURDERING MEN or #Government. #tcop #GOP,” tweeted last week @johnmatthew19, a self-described “Christian,American,Father,builder”.

Another purpose that Bushmaster rifles serve is to make profits for their manufacturer. Bushmaster rifles have made record sales in the wake of the Newtown grade school massacre. The Bushmaster AR-15 retails for about $1,048.99, making it more expensive that most traditional hunting rifles. People who buy it also tend to buy and use more ammunition. “They are fun, accurate, don’t kick, and before you know it, you’ve sent $100 worth of ammunition downrange with a few twitches of your trigger finger,” wrote one Field & Stream columnist.

The rising popularity of the Bushmaster AR-15 has helped make Remington Arms and its North Carolina-based parent company, Freedom Group, one of the nation’s largest and most profitable gun manufacturing consortiums. To continue sales, Freedom Group quietly collaborates with the gun lobby. In 2011, the same year a new CEO, George Kollitides II, took over Freedom Group, Kollitides was appointed to the NRA’s Nominating Committee to hand-pick candidates for elections to the NRA’s current board of directors, as I reported two weeks ago in Mother Jones. Freedom Group has grown from making nearly $80 million in profits five years ago to making an average of almost $250 million a year since 2009, much of it from sales of Bushmaster rifles.

“Bushmaster was one of the first companies to introduce modern sporting rifles to the consumer market,” reads Freedom Group’s last available annual report, “a market that is growing faster than the general firearms industry.”