It is the most cussed and discussed object in America.
A series of attacks on schools and other groups of civilians has put this semi-automatic weapon in an ugly spotlight.
Too many people can be killed too quickly, say millions of protesters.
Yet the gun has plenty of supporters, too: weekend shooters, the National Rifle Association, defenders of the Second Amendment — and a hell of a lot of sportsmen in North Idaho.
My pal Don Bradway is a fierce proponent of gun ownership, and I asked him point blank: “What’s the big deal about firing a semi-automatic rifle?”
He answered honestly: “It’s just fun to blow things up on a range, and see targets and dirt and all kinds of stuff flying everywhere.”
So there’s the debate in a nutshell: Sport shooters fire the AR-15 for sheer enjoyment, while detractors insist that the ability to unload rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger is an invitation for slaughter.
I didn’t consider myself qualified to offer an opinion, since I hadn’t fired an automatic or semi-automatic weapon since qualifying with an M-16 back in my Air Force days.
And that was a million years ago.
THE ONLY way to understand the intensity of the current debate, it seemed, was actually to fire an AR-15 — and not just plink off one or two rounds.
I needed to fire plenty, and to feel the rush of some multiple bursts — which gives you the sensation that they’ll never stop.
So we did it.
It took a real buddy to volunteer to work with an amateur, but Duane Rasmussen agreed.
“We’ll go someplace up in the mountains where there’s no danger,” he said. “And we’ll take things very, very slowly, so you can handle the rifle safely.”
I have no clue where exactly we wound up — except that it was far away from civilization and there were remnants of previous shooting (like targets) scattered around the place.
Duane gave me the whole lesson, and made me go over it again and again.
How to handle any gun, to always keep the safety on unless you’re shooting. Same with your finger on the trigger.
Oh, and always wear your headset ear protection. Shooting an AR-15 is literally creating an almighty explosion just inches from your ears.
AND THEN I became a shooter.
Not a good one, or a particularly accurate one, but I was definitely firing an awesome weapon.
First, I tried single shots.
Then the real test: What is it like to send off blockbuster rounds at supersonic speed, and do it faster than you can even think about it?
I aimed at a stump maybe 30 yards away, and lit it up — firing again and again through a haze of smoke and clouds of dust.
Next came a paper target already fastened to a dead tree, and I tore the thing to pieces — not to mention plenty of dirt around it with all my misses.
By then, Duane had loaded the rifle with a 60-round magazine (illegal in California and several other states). The giant mag allows you to fire what feels like a zillion shots in little more than a couple of heartbeats.
So now I’ve done it.
I’ve been on the trigger end of the deadly AR-15.
VERDICT: This may not satisfy anyone, but I see both sides of the argument.
When you get it out of your head that this can be a killing machine (and you do, quickly), then yeah, I’ve got to say it was fun.
Don was right about blasting stuff, and I confess I’d do it again.
On the other hand, when you DO get your head around this thing, the speed of firing is just simply terrifying.
I had flashbacks of that military M-16, which had a very specific purpose.
And it’s true ...
A bad actor with an AR-15 can become a mass murderer almost before anyone has a chance to grasp what’s happening.
I understand why protesters want this weapon banned, because those rounds come faster than humans can make decisions.
I’ve felt that now.
So what would I do if I could decide the fate of the AR-15 in this country?
Sorry, but I honestly don’t know.
Remember, there are more guns than people in the United States, and they are not going away. That’s the reality, and the backdrop for any debate.
Given that we’ll always be a gun culture, I truly do understand both sides.
Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week.