More on the Military and Civilian History of the AR-15

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This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.

Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.” You can see Winslow making these comments starting at about time 1:19:00 in the Armed Services Committee video here, and read about the reaction here, here, here, and from a pro-gun site here.

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The question Dean Winslow raised—whether  a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.

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Why the AR-15 Was Never Meant to be in Civilians' Hands

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Decades ago I wrote in the Atlantic about the creation of the AR-15, which was the predecessor of the military’s M-16 combat rifle and which now is the weapon most often used in U.S. mass gun murders. After the latest large-scale gun massacre, the one in Texas, I did a follow-up post about the AR-15, and then a range of reader views.

Among the responses I got was from a man who as a young engineer in the Vietnam era had worked, at Colt Firearms, on the M-16. He writes to explain why he is shocked, as he says the AR-15’s famed designer Eugene Stoner would have been, to see this weapon anyplace other than the battlefield.

“I do not believe that there is any place in the civilian world for a family of weapons that were born as an assault rifle,” he writes at the end of his message. You’ll see the reasoning that takes him there. He begins:

During the Vietnam war era, as a newly graduated mechanical engineer, I was hired by Colt's Firearms, the original manufacturer of the M-16, and tasked with M-16 related assignments during my employment.

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The Nature of the AR-15

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Back in the early 1980s, I described the origins of the AR-15 rifle, and its military counterpart the M-16, in an Atlantic article called “A Bureaucratic Horror Story” and a book called National Defense. This week I did an item about the AR-15’s role as the main weapon in America’s modern mass shootings. It explained that one reason for the AR-15’s killing power is that its bullets were designed not to pass straight through an object but to “tumble” when they hit, destroying flesh along the way and leaving a large exit wound on departure.

Readers write in, pro and con. Here’s a sample, starting with pro. From a reader in (pro-gun) Vermont:

There are a great many things wrong with the military, both in practice and in concept, but it offers one bit of education that is of use and more people should be aware of.

My father's experience was typical of many people I have heard of. He left his time in the (peace time) military with absolutely no interest in ever owning a gun. The Army had taught him in no uncertain terms that the one and only purpose of a rifle (not a "gun", a "gun" is what civilians call a cannon) it to kill people. And the one and only purpose of a pistol is to kill a human right in front of you. The main purpose of a military pistol is  for officers to shoot their own men with. The lesson being that if you are not interested in killing someone, you shouldn't have a firearm. Period.

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'The Animal Instincts at the Heart of Human Nature'

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In the run-up to this week’s election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, I ran a series of items on how to think of “tribal”-style loyalties in American politics, and whether that was the right term for “We’re right, you’re wrong” political intransigence.

As I mentioned in the latest installment, one reason for continuing the discussion was as a sample of the nuance and erudition with which Americans can still discuss contentious issues—contrary to the impression national politics might bring. For reference, the previous sequence began with an opening post about the failure of congressional Republicans to hold Donald Trump accountable to normal standards of behavior, or even to notice what he is doing. It was followed by reader responses  first,  second, third, and fourth.

Now, a reader in the American Midwest leads off with what the Virginia results suggest about the divisions, and our terms for it:

I have been wondering aloud about the tribal — I like the word for this purpose, realizing it might not be PC, coterie doesn't capture the clannish nature of the idea)—reactions to the VA election results, which are all-too-triumphant [on the Democrats’ side]. (Too close to Trump, dontcha think?)

I've been thinking ahead to 2018 and the obvious reaction coming from the GOP and particularly from the Trump WH is that they will double-down, since that's what 45 always does, never give an inch, never apologize, always believe you're right and say you're right regardless of the evidence to the contrary.  A tribal response on steroids, and it could work.

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