Barbie for grown men

by Gautam Raja

I get guns. I really do. I don’t own any, and don’t plan to, but I find them fascinating as objects. Growing up, my brother and I had a .22 air rifle, and it was one of our favourite possessions. Once in a while I handle a friend’s handgun or go clay shooting, and I love the heft, the oily clicks, and, finally, the challenge of trying to hit what you shoot at.

But I’ve been having trouble understanding the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Supporters of this gun don’t like the common term for it because a true “assault rifle” can be switched to automatic fire (such as the M16, which is the military version of the AR-15). The claim is that an AR-15 in civilian hands is a “modern sporting rifle” and suited to hunting and home defence. In America, in civilian hands, the AR-15 has become the mass-murderer’s weapon of choice. Newtown, Aurora, Las Vegas, San Bernadino, Sutherland Springs, and now Parkland.

Because it’s out of patent, many manufacturers make guns based on the AR-15 platform. Some you have heard of: Colt or Remington. Others perhaps not: Black Rain Ordnance, whose logo is the biohazard symbol, and tagline is “Let It Rain”. Or Daniel Defense, that has a video on its website with the tagline “Manufacturing Freedom”.

As of writing, these guns can be legally modified to fire at up to 800 rounds a minute. When their high velocity rounds hit living flesh, they carry so much force they cause something called cavitation, which results in massive injuries—far worse than the size of the bullet would suggest. An AR-15 bullet does not need to hit a vital organ or an artery to cause death.

So far, I’ve had trouble grasping two notions. One, why is a gun like this available to just about anybody above 18 in America? And two, why is it so beloved? I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to the first question, but as soon as I read that the AR-15 is a modular platform, I had an answer to the second.

There’s powerful appeal to customisable platforms of any kind. Hobbies are simply continuously delayed gratification, and we like to think that when we pick and choose, there’s no other bicycle or car or audio system or outfit or living room or travel itinerary or, indeed, rifle, out there quite like ours. If we put enough time and effort into curation and assembly, it’s almost as if we have lit the fires and wielded the tools ourselves—that we have manufactured.

Many of the AR-15 websites I visited sell gun parts, and it seems that every bit of this rifle can be swapped to either vary its applications or fit, or indulge your aesthetic preferences, from camouflage to Star Wars. Simply the options to add a flashlight could keep you deep in Google for hours, and I have to admit, some of those tricked-out guns look very good indeed.

And so, another name for the AR-15 is “Lego for grown-ups”, and even “Barbie for men”. The tragic irony then is that this gun is a toy. Neither hunting nor target practice require you to shoot 100 bullets in under 8 seconds. Home defence is better served by a hand gun, especially considering that a bullet from an AR-15 will easily go through a couple of houses in a row.

And so, if you wonder why children are being murdered in their classrooms in a developed country that is not at war, one reason is that a bunch of grown men don’t want their game of Soldier-Soldier to end.

First published in Gulf News, February 27, 2018