I’m willing to bet that most Stanford students think AR-15s should be illegal. Something about the school’s progressive ideals, Bay Area location and liberal leaning students makes it the perfect incubator for anti-gun sentiments. After all, it’s rare to hear anybody on this campus lobbying for guns in the same way that students do for, say, sanctuary status or fossil fuel divestment. More specifically, being in favor of semi-assault rifles (such as the oft-derided AR-15 and similar models) is almost a fringe opinion, limited only to the farthest-right reaches of our campus’ political spectrum.
For better or worse, the AR-15 debate is one that rarely rears its head until the occurrence of yet another terrible shooting. But because this issue’s prevalence is so dependent on news events and tragedies, its discourse tends to be dominated by the emotional appeals of liberals in the aftermath of tragedy and the equally obtuse reaction from the right. Little positive discussion ever occurs. But that is why now is perhaps a better time than ever to discuss the always-controversial question of AR-15 ownership.
For the record, I don’t know what I think about the issue. It’s an especially tough one in a time when few political conflicts have good resolutions. But what bothers me even more about this debate than my personal inability to establish a position is the monolithic group thought that dominates this campus’ collective opinion — the widespread belief that there is only one right answer and that any degree of informed dissent is downright blasphemy. I’d like to contradict that all-consuming pseudo-logic, even if I myself don’t fully buy into the pro-gun argument. There are valid reasons for the private ownership of the AR-15 and similar weapons. Even if the argument is not convincing enough as a whole, even the small acknowledgement that all pro-gun people aren’t just mindless hicks and NRA puppets would be a success, especially on this particular campus.
It’s somewhat understandable that Stanford’s more progressive students are so opposed to the ownership of this weapon. After all, many of them do hail from left-leaning coastal states where exposure to rifle ownership is a rare occurrence. Generally speaking, it’s rather difficult to appreciate something if you’ve never truly experienced it.
One of the most common questions in this discussion is, “What’s the point of owning such a gun?” On paper, it does seem a little silly for anyone to need a weapon with such destructive capabilities. But an oft-forgotten point is that the true pleasures of gun ownership aren’t exclusively pragmatic ones.
Holding a weapon in your own hands and using it in a controlled manner is a near-religious experience. No matter how many times you’ve held a gun, there is always an instant recognition of power when you pick one up again. It may just be a hunk of metal, but without fail, there is always a sort of unspeakable gravity to it. A gun radiates power. It is, in a word, thrilling. And the bigger the gun, the greater the thrill. Now, I only mention all this because the traditional argument against AR-15s is that the pleasure they provide their users doesn’t match their potential for harm. I would certainly posit that the vast majority of people who make this argument have never used or appreciated how incredible a semi-automatic rifle really is.
Pleasure alone is not reason enough to justify the ownership of a tool that’s perceived to be so dangerous. When we really look at the numbers though, that stigma may be a bit of a misconception. As of 2016, there are some 5 million privately owned AR-15s in the United States. In the year before that, the FBI reported that 248 people were killed by that weapon and similar models. This is clearly far too many, but all pleasures in life pose risks. Perhaps a comparable example is alcohol, another dangerous tool, but one for which society has collectively decided that the benefits outweigh the risks. Figures from the latest national survey indicate that 52.7 percent of Americans 12 and older (roughly 140 million people) claim to have consumed alcohol in the last month. The year of that report, alcohol-related homicides numbered at 88,000 people. Now, liquor and firearms are impossibly different entities but, in a blind test with these figures, anybody could tell you that alcohol poses the far greater societal risk. Nonetheless, politicians and activists don’t jump to demonize liquor in the same way that they do with weapons.
Numbers aside, there are additionally some clear ethical problems with illegalizing this type of gun. For one, a total ban would disproportionately affect people from middle America, who have traditionally been the largest consumers of these firearms.
A blanket AR-15 prohibition would almost entirely affect innocent, responsible people. Take for example, my own cousin. He’s currently 20 years old, much like many of the students on this very campus. He hails from a 5,000-person town in a flyover state. He also owns an AR-15. On merit alone, I don’t think this makes him a bad person. Like the vast majority of gun owners, he practices great caution. He supports “extensive background checks and mental illness evaluations” and only even takes the weapon out “a couple of times a year.” But in a town where there’s so little to do, firearms provide a relatively safe outlet for time and energy that could easily be spent pursuing much more hazardous endeavors. If he wants to take a specialized gun out and use it on occasion, who are we to tell him he can’t? Stanford, and more broadly the coasts, have profited so much from economic globalization, largely at the expense of the same rural communities that my cousin and millions more come from. Taking away one of their remaining pleasures is no more than rubbing salt in an open wound.
All this talk of liberal elitism, raw pleasure and hard data fails to account for the more practical realities of gun ownership. There are many utilitarian reasons for buying such a gun, some of which are more valid than others. Now, debating whether something like, say, personal protection is a reasonable argument for AR-15 ownership is a whole other discussion in and of itself. The Second amendment, utilitarian gun usage and the notion of personal liberty also serve to further muddle this already-impossible argument.
All of this may not have convinced you that AR-15s should be legal weapons in this country, and that’s fine. What’s far more important is that we collectively acknowledge that not all of the pro-gun coalition’s points are invalid. All AR-15 owners can’t be reduced to hicks and members of the tin-foil hat brigade. This has been a way of life for many, many people for decades and for outsiders to come in and tell them they can no longer live as such is both morally questionable and terribly patronizing.
AR-15s are certainly dangerous. They pose uncommon risks and raise difficult questions. But a flat-out rejection of any discourse regarding their legality is both counterproductive and demeaning. Agreeing with the pro-gun coalition is understandably a stretch for many. But acknowledging that their opinion is just as valid as any other is certainly a positive step.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.