Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

The gun Congress can’t ban

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Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller, in 2008, that comprehensive gun bans were “off the table,” the NRA insisted that because gun owners were becoming complacent, “our firearms freedoms may be in greater danger.” The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill.

So far, only laws at the state and local levels have been passed. New York, Connecticut, and Maryland instituted expanded assault-weapons bans, placed limits on magazine capacity, and imposed new licensing and registration procedures on gun buyers. (In April, the Senate debated more limited measures, including a broader system of background checks, but none of them passed.) The real goal for gun-control advocates, though, is a new federal assault-weapons and high-capacity-magazine ban to replace the one that expired in 2004.

But a federal ban won’t work. Modern firearms like the AR-15 rifle — the type of gun used at Aurora and Sandy Hook — aren’t really stand-alone weapons at all. They are a collection of integrated components, which makes controlling their proliferation almost impossible. Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted (already an unlikely scenario), they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.

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is the author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, which was published in March by Knopf. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Happiness Is a Worn Gun,” appeared in the August 2010 issue.

More from Dan Baum:

Commentary July 20, 2012, 7:30 pm

The Price of Gun Control

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  • will08smith

    Popular with hunters? Really?

    • JRyder44

      Yes, as a matter of fact, it’s probably THE MOSTpopular rifle for hunting small to medium sized game today.

    • ziptiespec

      JRyder is correct. The modularity of the platform is one aspect of it’s popularity as a hunting rifle. Uppers and barrels can be found in a variety of calibers from .22LR (perfect for squirrel/rabbit), to .308 (antelope, deer, elk, etc.). Heck, you can even set up an AR to shot .50 rounds!

      • ziptiespec


    • thumper79

      and target shooters. the reason most ar shooters want and have them is because they look like the automatic ar. wow factor and coolness factors drive sales. obama/ feinstein/ biden have to create a boogyman to scare voters and standing on the graves of victims of mass murder accomplishes this. and every time the nra, gun owners and manufacturers back down/ apologize for having guns, we loose a bit of what america is all about. all the anti-gunners have to do is reproduce, educate their children to fear guns, and teach them to vote accordingly, then they can pass laws or get rid of the constitution.

      • Phil Blank

        They are already get rid of the constitution!
        Now thay want your DNA and the courts say its OK!

  • RP

    Montana’s Firearms Freedom Act is almost certainly unconstitutional. The relevant precedent is not Lopez, as the article suggests, but Gonzales v. Raich, which was decided 10 years later. In an opinion joined by Kennedy (and with a concurrence by Scalia) the Court held that Congress could regulate the production and consumption of homegrown marijuana—pot that obviously never crossed state lines. Because of Raich, marijuana users in Colorado, for example, can still be prosecuted by the federal government. The homegrown pot in the case was not even being sold and so had even less of a connection to interstate commerce than a firearm manufactured and sold within a single state. Nevertheless, the Court said that stopping domestic production was necessary to enforce a national ban on the interstate commerce in marijuana. Every first year law student knows this case, and Mr. Baum’s article should have mentioned it.

    • Christopher Cox

      Baum’s implied argument is that if marijuana were a constitutionally protected product like firearms are, Raich would have been decided differently.

  • Robert

    I really liked how the author stressed the importance of training for and acceptance of gun ownership. He’s right when he says that gun owners have both rights AND responsibilities to care about, not just rights.

  • Warren

    Weapons will always be available to someone. The question is
    who? The foundation of freedom is responsibility and one’s
    ability to let others enjoy life , liberty and happiness. Because of
    liberal thinking the sentences against evil people abusing their
    freedoms (using guns for crime not defense) are not given
    promptly. The offenders of freedom need to pay not law
    abiding citizens. The rights in our constitution are God given
    and non-negotiable. Responsilbility in freedom is that our politicians
    and judges include tough laws, sentences and restitution for the
    offended party, not always an easy job .
    God help us keep the republic that many gave their lives, home
    and bank accounts for . Are you willling to do the same ?

  • Phil Blank

    We just had a teen in Cleveland that is about to go to court for beating a man and his wife to death, with a sledge hammer!

    • Bo Diddley

      must get a constitutional amendment banning sledge hammers now.

  • bittercling

    Dan Baum has a long history of anti-gun hit pieces disguised as wide eyed, innocent open mindedness but the sad part is that he thinks anyone is really buying what he’s selling.

  • Mobydark

    Intriguing piece, but his conclusion–that the only answer to the problem is stronger storage requirements (!)–is incredibly lame. His suggestion that the answer to prevention of mass shootings–keeping citizens armed–is asinine. I’ve been involved in trying to identify sensible responses to the problem of gun violence in the US for years, but Baum is convincing me that the only sensible solution is an outright ban on all firearms. Do I think that will happen? Of course not. But that’s the answer.

  • bresson2

    If I want to read NRA propaganda, I can buy “American Rifleman.”

  • coolerheads

    “And the flow of guns to criminals gets pinched down to a trickle,
    because, as one survey found, as many as 70 percent of the guns used by
    violent felons are stolen.”

    That line–in the second paragraph of page 8–obscures the fact that people who buy firearms as a “front” for those who cannot legally purchase them declare those guns “stolen” after the illegal exchange is made. Guns safes do nothing to combat these “thefts.”

    I appreciate the author’s cogent probe of legal loopholes and their ramifications, but the sentence quoted above represents a serious challenge to his prescriptive assertions.


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