How a Weapon of War Has Worsened the Mass Shootings Epidemic

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AR-15s, designed for maximum killing in combat, are ever more popular with mass shooters.

It was a grim but not terribly surprising coincidence. Last Monday morning, just a few hours after the Washington Post published a new series on the popular semiautomatic rifles known as AR-15s, a suicidal 28-year-old used one to murder three children and three adults at a Nashville elementary school. It was the sixth mass shooting in the past 10 months committed with this type of highly lethal firearm, according to our Mother Jones database.

Semiautomatic pistols used to be the top weapon of choice for mass shooters. But ever since the massacres at a Colorado movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school just over a decade ago, many perpetrators of these crimes have armed themselves with AR-15s and caused growing carnage. The phenomenon accelerated further with five high-profile attacks in 2022, beginning with those in Buffalo and Uvalde. (In the several years prior: the massacres in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Boulder, Indianapolis—the list quickly grows long.) Mass shooters increasingly also use body armor, tactical vests, and other tactical gear, the Nashville perpetrator included. As I reported in December:

This disturbing trend connects in part to how mass shooters emulate previous attackers as they plan and prepare, one of multiple common warning behaviors I examine in Trigger Points, my book about preventing mass shootings through the method of threat assessment. The weapons and gear these perpetrators select has coincided with aggressive marketing tactics long used by the gun industry:

The new reporting from the Post adds some striking detail about how the firearms industry collaborated with video game companies to captivate young potential buyers. In 2010, representatives of two gun manufacturers met at a Nevada shooting range with technicians working on the blockbuster first-person shooter, “Call of Duty,” to record the firing of AR-15s and other weapons. “No detail, even the click of inserting a magazine, was too small to capture, participants said,” according to the Post.

The fast rising popularity of AR-15s—a civilian version of a rifle that was designed for maximum killing in war—drove booming overall gun sales. A Mother Jones investigation seven years ago into the secretive world of America’s 10 biggest gun manufacturers estimated an $8 billion annual business. As we reported then, Remington Outdoor, the maker of the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, saw its profits increase nearly thirtyfold over the following year—with the biggest jump in sales coming from assault rifles. 

Today, the gun industry estimates that at least 20 million AR-15s are in circulation throughout the country, according to the Post. Nearly 14 million of those were manufactured by US gun companies over the past decade alone, generating sales revenues of roughly $11 billion.

The past decade brought a sharp increase in shooters using military-style semiautomatic rifles. Among the 83 mass shootings since 2012 documented in the Mother Jones database (whose perpetrators also include several high school adolescents and various middle-age men), 34 of the cases involved such assault rifles.

As those weapons have soared in popularity in the United States, there also remains scant regulation of the military-grade body armor that mass shooters increasingly use. Such gear helped protect the perpetrator who committed the racist mass murder at the supermarket in Buffalo; his body armor stopped a bullet fired by a security guard, whom he then fatally shot. Body armor also made it more difficult to stop the attacker at Club Q in Colorado Springs, according to the military veteran who heroically took him down.

The Post series also spotlights the horrific damage that these weapons can do to human bodies big and small, like those of the three nine-year-olds gunned down in Nashville. The velocity and impact of the .223-caliber rounds can blast apart organs and demolish bones, as the Post illustrates with videos that are harrowing to watch even just as animated visualizations. The bodies of some children killed at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers perished, were so obliterated that authorities had to resort to DNA testing to identify those victims.

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