The AR-15 is being dubbed the “weapon of choice” for mass shooters. And the act of terrorism in Orlando has renewed calls for an “assault weapons” ban.
But by any definition of the term, the AR-15 is not an assault rifle.
What constitutes an assault rifle?
An assault rifle needs to hit the mark on three different characteristics.
1. An assault rifle has selective fire.
That means that the user can toggle between at least two settings, semiautomatic and automatic.
The AR-15 is a gas powered semiautomatic rifle, meaning one pull of the trigger corresponds to only one round being fired.
In contrast, the M16 and sometimes the M4, which are the United States military's small arms rifle of choice, do fire automatically. The M16 and M4 also allow a three-round burst option, which is also not possible on an AR-15.
2. An assault rifle fires an intermediate cartridge.
An intermediate cartridge is less powerful than standard full power battle rifle cartridges, but is still more powerful than the common pistol cartridges. The 5.56 NATO round, used in the M16, is an intermediate cartridge. So is the .223, used in the AR-15.
3. An assault rifle will have a detachable magazine.
The AR-15, like the M16 and the M4, have detachable magazines.
But virtually every modern firearm uses detachable magazines.
The AR-15 looks very similar to the M16, which is an actual assault rifle. They are both heavily customizable and have many of the same features.
An AR-15 owner can tack on scopes, muzzle brakes, and spiffy slings. The user can interchange lowers and swap out magazines as well. The AR-15 and the M16 look very similar.
Here is a U.S. Marine aiming an M4.
And here is a U.S. civilian holding an AR-15.
But their functionality could not be more different.
Some misconceptions about the AR-15.
The AR-15 is not that powerful when compared to common hunting rifles. A .223 round is often too small to take down large game like deer and elk.
In many cases, the .223 is prohibited for hunting certain game. Because of its lack of power, it might not fully kill the animal, leading to suffering.
For instance, in the state of Washington, all big game — with the exception of cougar — can only be hunted with a minimum of .24 caliber (6mm) centerfire rifle.
Rather, hunters opt instead for more powerful rounds such as a .30-30 or a .308.
In addition to overestimating its power, inexperienced gun critics often cite the AR-15's ability to rapid fire.
In the wake of the Orlando attack, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat, told CNN's Erin Burnett:
"If [Matteen] was not able to buy a weapon that shoots off 700 rounds in a minute, a lot of those people would still be alive. That's exactly right. If somebody like him had nothing worse to deal with than a Glock pistol…he might have killed three or four people and not 50. It’s way too easy to kill people in America today and we have to think long and hard about what to do about that.”
What Grayson said on national television was false. The AR-15 cannot fire 700 rounds per minute. Such an action would be a physical impossibility.
And while Grayson said “a Glock pistol” can only target “three or four people,” the standard magazine for a Glock 19 holds 15 rounds.
But Burnett didn't challenge Grayson, instead she told him, “You’re right about that. Thank you very much.”
Another misconception is that the “AR” in AR-15 is an abbreviation for “assault rifle.” It is not. The “AR” is an abbreviation for “ArmaLite Rifle,” after the company that designed the firearm.
So while gun control supporters rally their cohorts to bring about an assault rifle ban, the AR-15 is not an assault rifle. It just looks like one.
Editor's note: This article was updated after publication.