Context — June 17, 2016, 3:27 pm

How to Make Your Own AR-15

A gunman kills 49 people with an AR-15 assault rifle at an Orlando nightclub; Dan Baum investigates whether gun-control laws could ever stop the weapon from proliferating

Published in the June 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “How to Make Your Own AR-15,” examines how the rifle’s particular design makes it nearly impossible for lawmakers to ban. Read the full article here. Subscribe to Harper’s for instant access to our entire 166-year archive.


From a New York Times report, published June 12, 2016, on a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

A man who called 911 to proclaim allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, and who had been investigated in the past for possible terrorist ties, stormed a gay nightclub here Sunday morning, wielding an assault rifle and a pistol, and carried out the worst mass shooting in United States history, leaving 50 people dead and 53 wounded.

The AR-15 is semiautomatic, meaning that, unlike a machine gun, it fires only one round with every pull of the trigger. (AR is short for ArmaLite, the company that first developed the weapon, not, as many assume, “automatic rifle” or “assault rifle”; the AR-15 is not a true assault rifle because it cannot fire continuously.) Part of the reason the gun is so popular is that it is modular; using only the tip of one of its bullets, you can snap it apart into a dozen pieces, including barrel, stock, bolt, and buttstock. AR-15 owners affectionately call it “Lego for grown-ups.” Shooters endlessly transform their rifles by swapping out components — a new chrome-lined barrel, a more ergonomic tactical grip, a carbon-fiber forward hand guard, laser sights — even to the extent of changing the gun’s caliber.

The only one of the AR-15’s many parts that carries a serial number is the lower receiver, a flat, hollow box a little smaller than a VHS tape. The trigger mechanism fits inside, and everything else attaches to the outside. No ammunition passes through it. Because the lower receiver alone is stamped with a serial number, it is the only part that is considered a firearm under the law and the only part of the weapon whose purchase is subject to background checks and other gun regulations. Everything else that makes the AR-15 a gun — the barrel, grip, stock, magazine, trigger, bolt assembly, and more — can be bought and shipped through the mail without any need for paperwork or government approval. Once a shooter has a single lower receiver, he can build himself an almost infinite variety of guns without anyone knowing exactly what he’s got. The paper record at the gun store where he acquired the rifle might say he bought a .223-caliber AR-15, but that means nothing; he might since have changed it to any of about thirty calibers — or even to a shotgun or a crossbow — and he might be changing it every other week. In the six states that require AR-15s to be registered, records concerning the configuration of the guns in circulation are guesses.

The market for the AR-15 is enormously lucrative. There’s always some new accessory to buy, and a gigantic components industry exists to feed the desire. (Another nickname for the rifle is “Barbie for men.”) The AR-15 is popular for the same reason the latest iPhone is popular: it’s the most advanced technology in its field. At a firearms-industry trade show in Las Vegas in January, which filled more exhibition halls than I was able to visit in two days, about two thirds of the booths sold parts and accessories for the AR-15. Visit a rifle range, and it’s pretty much the only gun you’ll see people shoot. Although it’s often portrayed as something that only a mass killer could possibly want, it is practically the whole gun business — a favorite among hunters, sport shooters, and for home defense. One in five guns sold in America last year (and more than half of all rifles) was an AR-15. To the common post–Sandy Hook question “Who needs a gun like that?” millions of AR-15 owners reply, “Everybody.”

Read the full article here.

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More from Dan Baum:

From the April 2016 issue

Legalize It All

How to win the war on drugs

From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

The gun Congress can’t ban

Perspective May 17, 2013, 9:00 am

On Gun Control and the Great American Debate Over Individualism

The firearm as emblem of personal sovereignty

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Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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