Monday numbers: A closer look at AR-15-style semi-automatic assault weapons and the grim details of what they do to human beings

By: - June 13, 2022 6:00 am
An individual fires an AR-15-style rifle at a shooting range in Greeley, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The recent horrific mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have caused Americans to intensify their longstanding national debate over so-called “assault weapons.”

In 1994, the federal government enacted a ban on the purchase of these weapons – what the U.S. Justice Department described at the time as “semiautomatic firearms with a large magazine of ammunition that were designed and configured for rapid fire and combat use.” (Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004, despite the prohibition being highly effective,.)

Unlike an automatic weapon such as a “machine gun” – largely banned in the U.S. since the 1930s it allows the shooter to simply hold down the trigger once and literally spray bullets — a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 and its kin, requires the shooter to repeatedly pull the trigger to fire each round.

That said, it would be inaccurate to picture such weapons as in any way resembling the traditional image of a “rifle” that a layperson might retain from, say, watching an old TV or movie Western.

Simply put, as the image above reflects, a semi-automatic rifle looks like the kind of weapon one might see in a theater of war or an emergency involving a law enforcement SWAT team. What’s more, because the “magazines” attached to these weapons can hold dozens of rounds (i.e., bullets), a shooter can fire off numerous shots in short order.

But what really sets these weapons apart from the guns so many of us have seen in TV and movies is the damage they do. Most Americans grow up with the image of a soldier or criminal being shot, clutching at their stomach or chest to cover the entry point, and then lifting their hand to reveal a small red spot. We think of the bullet carving path into the body that matches its diameter.

That’s not, however, what usually happens with assault weapons. As commentator Max McCoy explained last week in a powerful essay for the Kansas Reflector:

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.”

A recent NPR report put it even more vividly:

Bullets from weapons such as handguns typically pierce straight through a target, medical experts say. By comparison, weapons such as the AR-15s used in many mass shootings, can liquefy organs because of their much higher projectile speeds.”

Some key relevant numbers about AR-15-style weapons – the weapon that the National Rifle Association once infamously dubbed “America’s rifle”:

3 – number of times faster that a bullet fired from an AR-15-style weapon travels than one fired from an average 9 mm handgun

3 – number of times more damage to a human body that a bullet fired from such a weapon typically inflicts

Several inches – the width of the damage surrounding its path that the bullet fired from an AR-15-style weapon causes via a process referred to as “cavitation”

6-10 centimeters (or roughly the diameter of an orange) – the size of common exit wound from an AR-15 bullet

As few as 5 – number of minutes it takes for a person shot with an assault weapon to bleed to death

As little as $400 – retail price of an AR-15-style weapon

-37% – decline in U.S. gun massacres during the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban compared to the previous decade

-43% – decline in the number of people dying from gun massacres during that period

183% – amount by which gun massacres increased in the years after the ban expired

239% – amount by which gun massacre deaths increased

-70% – the risk for an American of dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the period in which the assault weapons ban was active as compared to the 13-year periods before and after

20 million+ – number of assault-style weapons in the U.S. today

2 – number of distinctive green Converse tennis shoes that the parents of 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez were forced to rely upon to identify her body after she was murdered in her Uvalde, Texas, classroom; the weapon with which she was shot did so much damage as to render her otherwise unrecognizable.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.