The legacy of America's love affair with military-style rifles was etched into the stricken faces of husband-and-wife paramedic team Mike and Jamie Shaw after they emerged from the bloody Texas sanctuary where gunman Devin Kelley unleashed his firepower on Sunday.
"I'm trying to get the horror out of my mind," Mike Shaw told reporters later, "but you can't unsee what you already saw."
First responders have echoed similar visions of carnage at a theater in Aurora, Colo., an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a community center in San Bernardino, Calif., a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and concert grounds in Las Vegas. This week, at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland, Texas, Kelley slaughtered 25 people, including a pregnant woman whose unborn baby also died.
In each case, an AR-15 or derivative was the killer's weapon of choice. In each case, a common theme from witnesses and first responders was the gruesome, blood-soaked nature of the crime scene.
OPPOSING VIEW: Don’t ban America’s most popular rifle
This is no coincidence. The gun (the AR doesn't stand for assault rifle but for the weapon's first designer, Armalite Rifle) is by far the most popular of the millions of assault-style rifles owned by Americans. Surgeons who have treated the wounds call the weapons perfect killing machines that can tear a body apart and create massive hemorrhaging.
The reason is simple physics. Semiautomatic assault rifles like the AR-15 fire a relatively small round at a high speed. Where tissue damage from a pistol would be confined largely to a bullet's pathway, the shock wave from an assault-style rifle round — like the high bow wave from a speed boat — creates a corridor of damage.
"It's just a wide path of destruction," says Dr. Ernest Moore, a Denver trauma surgeon and editor of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.
Large deer-hunting rifles can have the same effect, but their recoil is more powerful. The killing efficiency of a semiautomatic assault rifle is its low recoil, allowing a user to fire again and again with ease.
"If you survive an assault rifle injury, the complications are tremendous, things like the intestines will often leak, and you can have all sorts of problems with abdominal walls, hernia. Everything you fix can fall apart," says Dr. Peter Rhee, a former Naval doctor who treated wounded Marines in Iraq and today is chief trauma surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. "Infection is usually the biggest problem."
In 2008, when Justice Antonin Scalia authored a Supreme Court decision safeguarding the Second Amendment's right to possess weapons, he noted that that freedom is "not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever."
Thus, some guns can be restricted. A decade-long ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines expired in 2004. It's time to renew it, and close loopholes that allowed gunmakers to circumvent the law by making minor modifications to the weapons.
In a nation already saturated with guns, do we need to keep adding to this civilian armory weapons efficiently designed to maim and tear apart human flesh? Is that really what our Founders envisioned?
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