Opinion

Black rifles are the favorite of mass shooters. To save lives, these guns have to go.

June 5, 2022 3:33 am
Flowers, plush toys and wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed on May 24 after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire inside the school. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Flowers, plush toys and wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed on May 24 after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire inside the school. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

We must ban the black rifles.

It’s the only way to stop the epidemic of mass killings in America, where the favored weapon of the gunmen (and they are nearly all men) is the AR-15 and its variants, assault weapons collectively known as “black rifles.” Yet the National Rifle Association and a chorus of conservatives are attempting to deny the obvious by using any excuse to evade their culpability in mass slaughter.

Just take Phillip Journey, a gun rights activist and a district judge from Wichita, who got his 13 minutes of shame during an interview last Sunday with CNN’s Jim Acosta. Journey is on the NRA board of directors and he was in Texas for the association’s annual convention, which in a remarkable bit of tone-deafness, was held as planned in Houston.

“Isn’t some of this blood on the NRA’s hands?” Acosta asked.

Journey, a 68-year-old Haysville Republican and former state senator, was annoyed by the question. He said he didn’t believe the supposition of the question was accurate. He claimed not to be a spokesman for anybody, but he claimed the NRA had worked to tighten gun laws.

Acosta cut him off and said Journey was saying things that were untrue, because the NRA had pushed for the most relaxed gun rules possible.

“Isn’t this blood on your hands?” Acosta pressed.

“I’m not the one that pulled the trigger, and neither are the members of the National Rifle Association,” Journey said.

“Can somebody bring an AR-15 into your courtroom?” Acosta asked.

“Of course not,” Journey said awkwardly. Then he laughed and tried a pun. “That’s kind of a loaded question.”

Ouch.

Journey is a trial judge in the 18th Judicial District, in Wichita, currently assigned to family law. He was appointed in 2008 and has had to stand every four years for reelection since, because Sedgwick County is one of those districts with partisan elections. He won in 2020 against a Democratic challenger, Joni Cole. Before becoming judge, he was a state senator for five years, during which he worked to expand access to guns in Kansas.

“I’ve always had a concern in my heart for the right to keep and bear arms,” Journey said in a 2020 podcast.

He was elected to the 76-member NRA board of directors in 2020. Since then, Journey has tried to reform the nonprofit, which last year filed for (but was denied) bankruptcy in New York amid a scandal over director Wayne LaPierre’s lavish lifestyle and alleged misappropriation of millions of dollars. To Journey, “reforming” the NRA means getting rid of the top brass and making it more efficient at advancing gun rights. To assist this quest, Journey — who testified at the New York bankruptcy trial — set up a legal fund, Save the NRA, to take donations. The lost bankruptcy bid exposed the nonprofit to efforts by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who seeks to dissolve the organization over “fraud and abuse.”

LaPierre was reelected at last Friday’s NRA convention, with Journey casting the lone dissenting vote. Despite the scandal, the association continues to wield unparalleled influence in conservative politics, with former President Donald Trump appearing in person in Houston.

The NRA’s power here in Kansas was demonstrated in 2013, when a University of Kansas journalism professor, David Guth, expressed his anger on social media after 12 were killed by a shooter at the Washington Navy Yard.

“The blood is on the hands of the #NRA,” Guth tweeted, among other sentiments.

His suspension by the school was swift.

People shoot AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on Oct. 12, 2019, in Greeley, Pennsylvania. The event, organized by Kahr Arms/Tommy Gun Warehouse and Rod of Iron Ministries, bills itself as a “second amendment rally and celebration of freedom, faith and family.” (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

At one point in the CNN interview, Journey said an AR-15 was “just a semi-automatic rifle,” of the kind that had been around a century or more. He was trying to make the point that semi-autos fire one round per pull of the trigger, unlike fully automatic military weapons, which spray bullets. Journey, who knows his guns — he has boasted about his collection of historic firearms — is technically correct, but this misses the most troubling aspects of the AR-15 and similar rifles.

The AR-15 is the civilian version of the fully auto M-16, the standard American small arm since Vietnam. But the destructive capability of the AR-15 is not in its mechanism of fire, but in the ammunition it uses. Both the AR-15 and the M-16 use .223 caliber ammo, with a bullet that is about the diameter of a pencil eraser. It’s the same bore size as a .22 long rifle cartridge, made for plinking and squirrel shooting. But .223 ammo has a larger and longer casing behind the bullet, with much more powder, pushing it to a high velocity.

Eugene Stoner, the inventor of the AR-15, knew that a small bullet with a lot of power becomes unstable when it meets flesh. Instead of making a clean wound, the .223 tumbles and gouges its way through muscle and bone. So, AR-15 ammo is deadlier than a comparatively larger bullet. The smaller caliber also has a lighter recoil, allowing more precise fire, and allows soldiers (or mass shooters) to carry three times as much ammunition for the same weight.

And while the AR-15 is semi-automatic, there are ways to make it fully automatic, with black market parts or just a coat hanger and a little know-how. Such modifications are illegal for the general public, under federal law, because they turn the weapons into machine guns. One of the most popular modifications was a “bump stock,” outlawed in 2019, that allowed the shooter to rock the trigger and fire several hundred rounds a minute.

When a 10-year federal ban on assault rifles ended in 2004, the AR-15 and similar rifles became wildly popular. Black rifles are modular in design, and the configuration of these weapons are only limited by the imaginations of the owners and the companies that sell accessories. Perhaps because they were once banned, they have become a symbol of freedom among some groups. The rocker Ted Nugent, also an NRA board member, has been publicly and aggressively vocal about his enthusiasm for black rifles.

But no matter how enthusiasts might rhapsodize about them, the AR-15 and related rifles are designed for one thing: killing human beings.

Shooters used these kinds of weapons in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where 26 were killed; at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, 49 dead; and in 2017 at Las Vegas, with 58 dead and 500 wounded, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The Las Vegas shooter was using a bump stock.

But no matter how enthusiasts might rhapsodize about them, the AR-15 and related rifles are designed for one thing: killing human beings.

– Max McCoy

Black rifles have been used in scores of other mass shootings and, more recently, to kill 19 fourth graders and two teachers at an elementary school at Uvalde, Texas.

The killer at Uvalde, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, legally purchased two AR-15 style rifles, along with several hundred rounds of ammunition, as a birthday present for himself, just days before the shooting.

Journey told Acosta that dealing with mass shootings is far more complicated “than whether we remove something from the public.” What would be more effective, he claimed, was to augment mental health services and to encourage states to supply accurate and timely felony conviction data to the federal government.

For a few minutes on CNN, a district judge from Kansas became the face of Second Amendment extremism. Journey is, I have no doubt, a responsible gun owner, but his politics gives cover to those who seek the opportunity to maim and kill children. His statements were similar to talking points recited by other conservatives: These acts are committed by the mentally ill. The answer to school safety is better doors. We must arm teachers.

Turn schools into prisons. Make teachers into armed guards.

What insanity.

You can’t eliminate the motive or the opportunity for mass shootings, but you sure as hell can limit the means. Banning black rifles would mean fewer children killed during mass shooting events. But because there are so many of these types of rifles out there, we not only have to ban the sale, but also the possession. This is what New Zealand did after 51 people were killed at Christchurch.

Look, I’m not anti-gun.

Like many Kansans, I grew up in a hunting culture. My father taught me to shoot as soon as I was old enough to hold a shotgun. I took my hunter safety course from the chief of police in my hometown of Baxter Springs. I’ve waded through ice while duck hunting with my brother, flushed quail on foot with my best friend, crept through timber alone while after squirrels.

I’ve given up hunting because I don’t enjoy killing, but I still have an interest in historic firearms. I own several muzzle-loading rifles and cap-and-ball revolvers. I’ve written more than a few stories set in the Wild West, and I can tell you that Dodge City had stricter gun laws back in 1878 than we do today.

What we are faced with is a public health crisis. Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children. We are a nation living in terror of the next mass shooting, and no number of good guys with guns will solve that. Uvalde should forever put that myth to rest, because the cops did not rush to confront the shooter but instead waited while kids called 911 on their cell phones and pleaded for help.

The answer to mass gun violence is not more guns.

We must ban the black rifles. We should restrict the use of .223 to the military. And we should raise the federal age limit to buy any gun. Few 18-year-olds, without military training, can handle the responsibility of a lethal weapon. It makes no sense that you can buy an AR-15 while still a teenager but must wait until you’re 21 to drink. Not all mass shooters are young, of course, but many are. That three years would buy us lives.

And we should not save the bloody NRA.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a weapon used in 2013 the Navy Yard shootings.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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