There were, I said to Kapelsohn, dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at these swim meets whom Kapelsohn did not know and had not trained. Would he feel more secure if more of the spectators at the swim meet were armed?
“It’s a complicated question,” Kapelsohn said, “but ultimately my feeling is that if there are proper safeguards—if we know that they are law-abiding and are not mentally ill and have a modicum of training—then I do feel safer.”
.223 Bushmaster Semi-automatic Rifle; AR-15 clone
The AR-15 is a weapon of war. It is the same firearm that soldiers carried in Vietnam, when it was called the M-16. It was designed to be lighter than the older, heavier M-1, easier to carry through the jungle, and was “conjured to form solely for the task of allowing men to more efficiently kill other men,” the New York Times war correspondent C. J. Chivers, author of a history of assault rifles called The Gun, wrote recently. Psychology researchers have found that we display a fear of guns as instantly as we display a fear of snakes, and with its coiled upper barrel and the cylinders that attach for sighting, the AR-15 can look as if it were designed to invoke that primal terror. There are now dozens of companies that make their own versions of the AR-15, and variations on the design have been used in the past year by Adam Lanza to murder 26 in Newtown, by James Holmes to kill twelve in Aurora, and by William Spengler near Rochester to kill two volunteer firefighters who had responded to a fire he had deliberately set. “Trying to ban the AR-15,” says John Farnam, a master firearms trainer who runs Defense Training International, a shooting school based in Colorado, “would be like trying to ban the Ford.”
There are people who shoot AR-15s in target competitions, and others who use them to annihilate colonies of groundhogs, but if those activities alone were driving the market, then there would not be shortages of the guns, as there are regularly after mass shootings and natural disasters. These are worst-case-scenario weapons, bulky and ill suited for protecting against individual bad guys, in many places too big to carry legally outside the home. Virtually no buyer will have experienced a situation that requires an AR-15 in civilian life. Perhaps for this reason, the industry’s advertisements for what it calls “tactical rifles” tend to emphasize their military heritage (“As close as you can get without enlisting,” ran one FNH ad), as if inviting a civilian buyer to imagine a soldier’s world rather than his own. “If I had to put it in a word, it would be uncertainty,” said Tom Mitchel, who works the counter at the Handgunner in Topton, Pennsylvania, when I asked him what drove sales. “Political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, uncertainty of all kinds.”
A little more than a year ago, the liberal writer Sam Harris, atheist author of The End of Faith, began to train assiduously with his gun, having rarely taken it out of its safe during adulthood. With no exact precipitating cause, he had started to worry more about the threat of violence. “I feel like it pollutes my mind to think like this,” he told me, but he started to look at the crime statistics and decided that he couldn’t rule out the chance that he himself—or his wife or his child—would be attacked. “These aren’t plane-crash odds,” he said. Part of what darkened his view was the sheer number of guns at large in America. “If those 300 million guns were not there, it’s a completely different argument,” Harris said. But for him, they changed the ethical calculation; they meant that an attacker would be more likely to be armed, and therefore to do more harm. “From my point of view, certain outcomes are so terrible,” Harris told me, saying that the only proper response was to arm yourself against them, even if the chance that they would happen was “nearly infinitesimal.”
And yet the current popularity of the AR-15 seems to reflect a sense of instability that runs deeper than crime. The Harvard professor Edward Glaeser once wrote a paper explaining that people tended to buy the most guns in communities where the power of the state, and its ability to protect its citizens, seemed most distant, a category that includes parts of rural America and the poorest sections of the inner city. One way of viewing the vogue for assault weapons is that those geographic distinctions have now become states of mind. Farnam told me that among his shooting students, he could detect an amorphous anxiety, an “impending sense of doom across Western civilization,” a sense that the economic collapse and the riots in Greece portended “something terrible.” Kapelsohn also owns assault weapons, and when we discussed them he related—as other gun proponents had—vivid, sometimes apocryphal stories of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when parts of New Orleans remained lawless long after the catastrophe, and of the chaos of 9/11. It is as if the threat of violence in America, in growing more distant, had also somehow metastasized. The biggest reason for the AR-15’s recent popularity, Kapelsohn thought, was a fear that, should the Obama White House succeed in its gun-control push, the weapons would become scarce or maybe actually confiscated. But there were other reasons, too. “People have realized,” Kapelsohn said, “the fragility of order in our society, and their own vulnerability if that order collapses.”