While AR-15-style guns and your typical handgun are both firearms, one radiologist claims that the difference between them can be seen in the bullet wounds they leave behind.
According to radiologist Heather Sher in a piece for The Atlantic, who treated several students injured in the recent shooting at a South Florida high school, a regular handgun leaves linear tracks through the victim’s body that are roughly the size of a bullet. The weapons are low velocity and often leave non-fatal wounds.
On the other hand, bullets from an AR-15 and weapons similar to it travel almost three times faster than those of a routine handgun. The shooter can cause more damage while being less accurate, and the wounds are often far more lethal.
AR-15 (or ArmaLite 15) rifles are technically designed for sporting use, as they are not fully automatic assault weapons. However, a semi-automatic action is designed for a series of fast, aimed shots on a battlefield. While the magazines are designed to hold 30 rounds, they can be legally reduced through magazine limits. Florida has not implemented any such restrictions.
Somerset said in a recent interview with Global News that the severity of the wounds has less to do with the gun than it does with the ammunition.
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“This is not really a property of the rifle itself. It’s a property of the ammunition. A handgun is typically firing a relatively heavy bullet that moves more slowly,” explained Somerset, who said the speed of a handgun’s bullet is “less than the speed of sound.”
“Rifle bullets are typically travelling faster than 2,000 feet per second. They’re supersonic,” he added.
Furthermore, while all rifle bullets have this capability, the ammunition used by the AR-15, a .223 Remington cartridge, travels at approximately 3,000 feet per second and causes a significant cavitation effect — where a bullet is travelling so fast that it sends shock waves through the body and severely damages or kills displaced tissue.
Somerset explains that people can die from bullets in one of two ways: when organs are directly hit as bullets pass through the body or through the cavitation effect.
“The cavitation effect from a handgun is typically not very severe. With rifles, the cavitation injuries can be very severe.” In addition, Somerset says that bullets from a .223 Remington “tend to tumble” through the body, which further worsens the cavitation effect.
Sher adds in her piece that she’s seen a handful of AR-15 wounds in her career, and said exit wounds from rifle bullets can reach the size of an orange.
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The National Rifle Association (NRA) has called the AR-15 the “most popular rifle in America,” touting its customizable features and ideal use for sport shooting, hunting and self-defence situations.
Andrew Somerset, an expert on American gun culture, previously told Global News that these features, along with the significant damage it can inflict, also make the AR-15 popular with violent criminals.
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“What the mass shooter is looking for — because they want to cause mass casualties — is a rifle that has a large magazine capacity, interchangeable magazines so they can easily change magazines and shoot a large quantity of ammunition, quickly, and kill a lot of people,” said Somerset, whose book Arms, the Culture and Credo of the Gun, came out in 2015.
The AR-15 and weapons like it have been used in a plethora of mass shootings in recent years including the Parkland, Fla., high school attack that left 17 people dead, as well as attacks that took place in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, Orlando, Fla., in 2016, Las Vegas, 2017, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, 2017.