This is the Bushmaster M-4.
This appears, based upon current law enforcement reports, to be the basic model and brand of weapon used in the elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT on December 14. (The shooter, Adam Lanza, also carried at least two, and possibly as many as four, semi-automatic pistols, reportedly manufactured by Glock and Sig-Sauer.)
The Bushmaster assault rifle shown above is one of several configurations that are sold in gun shops and enthusiast shows nationwide. In many states, you can walk into your local Walmart and buy one for about $895.
If the weapon in this picture looks remarkably similar to those you’ve seen toted around by military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by law enforcement “special weapons teams” and other highly trained units, that’s no accident. It is. It fires the same ammunition (the .223 caliber / 5.56mm x 45mm “NATO round”) that has been the standard high-velocity rifle ammunition used by the United States and its allies in combat for 35 years.
For those with only a passing familiarity with firearms that might sound like a surprisingly small caliber. After all, aren’t .22s the guns that country kids start out with to plink at small animals? Isn’t that basically one step up from a BB gun?
Well, yes and no. It’s all about the velocity, you see. The Bushmaster is to a kid’s .22 as an MX missile is to a model rocket. The NATO round was designed to a specification that required it to be able to penetrate one side of a steel helmet at 900 yards. The bullet was also designed to “tumble” upon impact – meaning that instead of penetrating human tissue in a straight line, the bullet will fragment or distort in such a way that it creates a much larger, more ragged, more variable wound channel. It also transfers considerably more of its kinetic energy to the “target,” meaning that all of that speed and power carried by the hunk of flying lead is less likely to be “wasted” by simply passing through the victim and continuing on its merry way for some distance beyond.
In standard configuration, a Bushmaster, like many AR15-style assault weapons, comes standard with a magazine that will pack 30 rounds of this ammunition. A 40-round magazine is available. Commonly, shooters will use a “coupler” to bind two full magazines together, allowing them to be swapped in seconds when the first is empty.
This is a weapon, and an ammunition cartridge, specifically designed to create catastrophic damage to living tissue. It is accurate enough, and its round are powerful enough, to be lethal at 600 yards or more. At close-combat ranges – say, inside a schoolroom – it is, shall we say, “overpowered.”
(Semi-automatic handguns, such as those reportedly carried by Lanza in addition to the assault rifle, are lesser but still entirely lethal killing machines in their own right. Depending on caliber, size, and model, a Glock or Sig semi-automatic has a capacity of anywhere from 8 to 20 rounds. Expanded magazines are available for many Glocks that can load 30 rounds of .45 ammunition, or more in smaller calibers. Conversion kits are also on the market that allow a standard semi-auto such as a Glock to be converted into a carbine, basically a small assault rifle in its own right.)
These assault rifles – called “AR-15s,” after the designation of the basic platform specification upon which they are based – have become among the best-selling firearms in history since they were legalized at the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004. There are tens of millions of them out there now, in the hands of civilians all over the country. They are extremely popular.
There are several reasons for this. One is that, unlike a standard rifle, they can be heavily customized. It’s almost like buying a custom car with infinitely swappable parts. You can change the barrel, the stock, the sights, the grips, the fore-end, the magazine follower… pretty much anything you want. You can add night scopes, competition scopes that allow hair-trigger adjustments for extreme range and wind direction, even “red-dot” scopes that enable the shooter to hit a target precisely from virtually any viewing angle… or several of the above at once.
Another reason for these weapons’ popularity is that they are intimately familiar to many younger military personnel and veterans. After all, they are virtually identical to their issue weapons that they carried into combat.
And finally – and yes, this is commonly mentioned within gun-enthusiast circles – if social order breaks down, this is about the highest-powered, most versatile, highest-capacity weapon you can have on hand. Period – I’m not just talking here about legal weapons. Even military-grade heavy machine guns (yes, you can indeed buy those, you just need to pay for a Class III license and go through Federal screening – or know someone who has) are not as desirable. After all, they’re bulky and hard to maneuver around inside a building. Say, your home. Or a school. And there’s a higher risk of “over-penetration,” meaning you could shoot right through the person you’re aiming at and hit friendlies on the other side.
When gun nuts talk about the “zombie apocalypse” that they’re preparing for – and this isn’t a joke, you can buy zombie-themed merchandise of all kinds these days, ranging from ammunition (coming in glowing green boxes) to targets to scopes with zombie designs and logos – what they’re really talking about is the day when the United States dissolves into chaos. And when it’s you against, say, a ravening horde of government-entitled “moochers” and other undesirables, you want something like the Bushmaster ready at hand.
There’s another factor in the marketing of these weapons, one of which gun nuts are a bit less consciously aware, even if the manufacturers and marketers of them are entirely cognizant of it. And that’s the “shawing factor.”
Guns, basically, make men feel like men.
Take a look at this recent Bushmaster marketing campaign. It’s about as blatant as they come: http://www.bushmaster.broco.com/mancard/
It’s long. It’s hard. It reliably goes bang when you push its trigger. It makes you powerful.
Anyone missing the picture here? For those who may feel less than powerful in their everyday lives, for whatever reason (say, inability to obtain a Viagra prescription), Bushmaster suggests that their product is the answer. And for considerably less than what it costs to get a few months of testosterone injections. What could be better?
These weapons are not hard to get. Here in Oregon – which is about middle-of-the-road in its gun laws, at least here in the southern part; neither as strict as California and Massachusetts or as permissive as Arizona or Utah – you basically walk up to the counter at Sportsmen’s Warehouse, or Cabela’s, or any gun shop, of which there are typically at least one in any town of more than about 10,000 people. A helpful, friendly salesman will hand you anything you want to look at. You point out what you want. You can load up your cart with any number of accessories – ammunition by the case, scopes, extra magazines, and so on – while the clerk runs your driver’s license and social security number through a system that checks you against a state-run database. This takes anywhere from fifteen minutes to a maximum of 45, if it’s a busy day (say, when a Democrat has just been elected President and every right winger in the country has rushed out to load up on assault weapons before Obama tries to grab them away).
And then you walk out of the store with all your goodies. Half an hour later, you can be loaded up and ready to go, blasting away at whatever targets float your boat.
Like, say, an elementary school full of six-year-olds.