Editor’s Note: Michael Fanone is a CNN law enforcement analyst who served for 20 years with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
No weapon has been more in the public eye in America of late than the AR-15, in large part because of its tragic role in some of this country’s deadliest shootings.
The AR-15 has the dubious distinction of being America’s most popular semi-automatic rifle. I’m more familiar with the gun than most people: I own one. And one thing I know for sure is that this weapon doesn’t belong in the hands of the average civilian.
I’ve owned multiple firearms for most of my life. I spent two decades in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department in a number of different roles, as a street cop walking the beat and on various special mission units.
I’m also a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. And when I wasn’t at my job doing police work, I worked part-time for several years in firearm sales as well as training law enforcement officers, members of the military and civilians.
I purchased my different guns over the years for the same reason that you might purchase a flathead screwdriver along with a Phillips screwdriver: Each one serves a different purpose. As an avid hunter, I’ve got a gun that I use for turkey hunting, one that I use for waterfowl and one I use to hunt deer and larger game like elk.
I purchased my AR-15 because I was assigned one as part of my police duties. But officers weren’t allowed to take our department-issued weapons home. I felt it was my responsibility to become proficient with any weapon I’d been assigned, so I bought one. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours training so that I could properly use it.
I’ve sold guns at big box retailers and I’ve also sold firearms at a small retail gun store. Some gun buyers have been misled into thinking that the AR-15 is somehow practical for self-defense. But frankly, it’s the last gun that I would recommend for that purpose.
Usually, the motivation for purchasing the AR-15 is simple: People want one because they want one. Most times, the person who buys an AR-15 comes into the store already knowing that they intend to purchase one.
I’ve pressed some customers about why they want an AR-15, but no one could ever come up with a legitimate justification for needing that particular weapon.
Some members of the tinfoil hat brigade have come up with the reply, “We need these weapons because we want to be effective against the government if it becomes tyrannical. That’s part of our Second Amendment right.” Personally, I think that’s ludicrous, but it has become an increasingly popular justification for purchasing a semi-automatic rifle.
The AR-15 was given to law enforcement because more and more frequently police officers were encountering these types of weapons on the street and finding that they were outgunned. One example that springs to mind is the famous 1997 North Hollywood, California, shootout at the Bank of America.
In that incident, two individuals clad in body armor held up a bank in the Los Angeles neighborhood. Police who responded at the scene literally had to run to a nearby gun store to purchase more powerful weapons, because they were using 9 mm pistols, while the bad guys were armed with semi-automatic rifles.
The standoff was one of the most infamous gun battles in American history, with 11 officers wounded – luckily, none fatally – and both robbery suspects shot dead. While it’s an extreme example, it is in many ways the situation encountered by officers all across this country: Police simply are outgunned against semi- and fully automatic firearms.
The bullet that comes out of the barrel of an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle can easily penetrate the target – the intruder or whatever person you are using deadly force to defend yourself or others from.
But it also will go through the wall behind that person, and potentially through that room and into the next wall. That power and accuracy are useful for military purposes, which is obviously what they were designed for. But it’s far more power than should ever be in the hands of the average civilian.
The bullet fired by the AR-15 is capable of defeating the average police officer’s body armor, like a knife slicing through butter. SWAT teams and some of the more specialized units typically are equipped with level IV Kevlar or steel-plated armor, which would stop maybe two or three direct hits, but eventually body armor breaks down after being hit with multiple rounds.
A person wielding an AR-15 has a range beyond 300 yards. For an officer armed with a 9 mm pistol, hitting a target beyond 50 yards is going to be difficult, even for the most accomplished marksman. A bullet fired by an AR-15 travels at three times the velocity as one fired by a 9 mm handgun. And magazines that can feed dozens of rounds into the weapon in the space of minutes clearly were meant for use only on the battlefield.
The prevalence of these weapons means police sometimes are overmatched, as we saw with the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month. In a situation where you have small children near the shooter, you want to remove the threat as quickly as possible.
But we all saw the tragic consequences at that elementary school, where police waited for more than an hour before engaging with the teenage gunman armed with an AR-15 who killed 19 young children and two teachers.
I have no doubt that police in Uvalde wish they had had weapons as powerful as the one carried by the shooter who snuffed out the lives of the victims in that school. But a far better outcome would have been if the shooter didn’t have an AR-15 in the first place.
Now that I’m no longer on the police force, my AR-15 collects dust in my gun safe. Rifle ranges that permit the type of training required to use this weapon system effectively are few and far between and the cost of ammunition exceeding a dollar per round is more than this guy can afford. I no longer need it. But neither, to be honest, do most of the people flocking to guns stores to buy one.
Banning these powerful weapons from the civilian marketplace is a no-brainer, as are universal background checks. Neither move is going to solve all the gun problems that we have, but it would be a start.
And outlawing these AR-15s would not require confiscating them from people who already have them. Once you’ve made these weapons illegal, anyone found with one would be subject to arrest, since possession of these weapons would be a crime. I think it’s likely that you would see a lot of people opting to turn them in.
If banning them outright seems like too extreme a solution to be politically palatable, here’s another option: Reclassify semi-automatic rifles as Class 3 firearms.
That would mean that someone wanting to purchase an AR-15 would have to go through a background check, fingerprinting and review by an official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – a process that takes anywhere from 12 to 16 months. And since Class 3 weapons can’t be purchased by anyone younger than 21, it would solve the issue of emotionally unstable 18-year-olds buying them.
A Class 3 firearm reclassification would also make those who are approved to purchase these weapons subject to an annual check that they are complying with federal regulations regarding secure storage of the firearm, and to confirm their licensing and other paperwork is up to date. All of these hoops and hurdles are sure to reduce the civilian demand for these weapons.
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I can’t overstate how dangerous it is to have semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 in the hands of civilians. Our public officials have it within their power to help make it harder for people who shouldn’t have these weapons to get them.
A police officer should never have to worry about being outgunned by the bad guy they’re protecting the public against.