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.

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