Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who allegedly killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday, is said to have done so with an AR-15, a weapon the National Rifle Association refers to as “America’s Most Popular Rifle.”
Cruz, and pretty much any other civilian, can legally (and if not legally, easily) purchase this terrifying assault rifle. Which is bizarre. Only in the U.S. would the military’s assault weapon of choice be easily accessible to, and wildly popular among, civilians.
Versions of the AR-15 have been the U.S. military's standard-issue assault rifle in every war since Vietnam. But only in the past dozen years have semi-automatic models become a fixture of American life. Gun-makers – emboldened by Congress and cloaked in the Second Amendment – have elevated the AR-15 into an avatar of civilian manhood, independence and patriotism. In the process, this off-patent combat rifle has become an infinitely customizable weapon platform that now accounts for nearly one in five guns sold in America.
Rewind to the history behind the AR-15 becoming the military’s weapon of choice, and you’ll run into chill-inducing paeans to its destructive potential.
[T]he Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – the tech-focused Pentagon arm today known as DARPA – ... assure[d] the AR-15's future as a combat weapon. It lobbied Pentagon brass to secure 1,000 rifles for use by South Vietnamese troops and their American special-forces trainers in 1961. The rifle surpassed all expectations in combat. And by August 1962, ARPA had issued a confidential report on the weapon's performance in war.
[I]t was the killing power of the AR-15 that turned the heads of Pentagon bureaucrats and congressional appropriators alike. The battlefield testimonials included in the ARPA report are horrific: One describes an Army Ranger killing a Viet Cong soldier at about 15 meters with a three-round burst. "One round in the head – took it completely off," it reads. "Another in the right arm, took it completely off, too. One round hit him in the right side, causing a hole about five inches in diameter." Each shot was a killer: "Any one of the three would have caused death."
The AR-15 was designed to inflict maximum damage as quickly as possible. It isn’t a hunting weapon; it’s not a self-defense measure.
The AR-15 assault rifle was engineered to create what one of its designers called "maximum wound effect." Its tiny bullets – needle-nosed and weighing less than four grams – travel nearly three times the speed of sound. As the bullet strikes the body, the payload of kinetic energy rips open a cavity inside the flesh – essentially inert space – which collapses back on itself, destroying inelastic tissue, including nerves, blood vessels and vital organs. "It's a perfect killing machine," says Dr. Peter Rhee, a leading trauma surgeon and retired captain with 24 years of active-duty service in the Navy. … "A handgun [wound] is simply a stabbing with a bullet," says Rhee. "It goes in like a nail." With the high-velocity rounds of the AR-15, he adds, "its [sic] as if you shot somebody with a Coke can."
Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, and Orlando: each one of these mass shootings was perpetrated using a version of the AR-15.
Cruz hadn’t even reached drinking age. The Miami New Times notes that his behavior at school and violent posts on social media had already spurred concerns. Neither fact impinged on his ability to secure an assault rifle.
Cruz made it abundantly clear that he wanted to harm people and that he was obsessed with getting the weapons to do so.
Yet nothing in Florida's gun laws — which have been loosened by decades of NRA-funded Republican control to the point they barely exist — would prevent him not only from buying guns but also from buying the most deadly military-style weapons available on the market.
Beyond online and on-campus behavior, Cruz may have even associated with and participated in trainings by a white supremacist group, the Republic of Florida. This, too, does more than hint at a propensity for violence. The Anti-Defamation League offers a terrifying rundown of the ROF:
The alt right white supremacist group borrows paramilitary concepts from the anti-government extremist militia movement (not itself a white supremacist movement). ROF describes itself as a “white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics” and seeks to create a “white ethnostate” in Florida. Most ROF members are young and the group itself is only a few years old.
For his part, Trump has been riling up racists—sorry, “white identitarians”—and encouraging violence even as he works to make it easier to get and wield assault weapons.
Before the election of Donald Trump, the legal tide had been turning. Federal courts had backed state laws limiting the deadliness of the AR-15. The Supreme Court even let stand a local ordinance banning them outright. The NRA would never admit it, says Adam Skaggs, litigation director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but current precedent is clear: The Second Amendment, he says, "is not violated by a law that says you can't walk down the street with an AR-15 and a 30-round magazine."
Now, the future of civilian assault rifles looks much more secure. Trump, helped to the White House by millions in advertising paid for by the NRA, is poised to overhaul the federal judiciary to the gun lobby's specifications.
Trump’s quest to pack the judiciary—the most critical branch of late when it comes to gun safety—with judges who will lift rather than uphold gun restrictions is a much, much greater threat than any lawmaker’s bluster. Legislation can be repealed, but federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments.