I Used an Assault Rifle in the Army. I Don’t Think Civilians Should Own Them.
I was 19 the first time I held an assault rifle. It was on a concrete court inside a National Guard armory in Bloomington, Ind., where I’d gathered with fellow R.O.T.C. cadets for weapons training. A sergeant opened an olive-drab arms case and handed out M-16A2s. We each took one apart and reassembled it, learning the sequence, learning how to safely clear it, learning to check its functions. It has been years since I held one, but regardless of the model — an M-16, an M-4 or a civilian variant like the AR-15 or Sig Sauer MCX — I’m confident I could disassemble it blindfolded.
That sounds more impressive than it is. In truth, it’s simple. Ensure the selector lever is on “safe.” Drop the magazine. Clear the chamber. Find the takedown pin. Lift the upper receiver. The rest is just a series of pushes or pulls on particular parts: the charging handle, the buffer spring, the bolt carrier group, the retainer pin. My brain might forget the names of the pieces, but my hands remember. Even if I just pantomime the act of holding that rifle, my hands know where to rest: index finger over the trigger well — never inside it — thumb on the selector lever, ready to switch and fire.
The massacre in Orlando this week, in which the shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX, has renewed arguments for banning assault weapons, but even talking about these guns in America can become a game of semantics. People obsess over terminology like literary scholars. I’ve taught college English for almost two years now, and for all the fulminating against the culture of political correctness, I’ve never seen language scrutinized like the language of armaments and gun control. There is a mechanical difference between the M-4 I carried in Afghanistan and a civilian assault rifle, but given the way we trained and shot (using semiautomatic mode), there is almost no distinction. When I look at a photo of myself in Afghanistan — on a combat mission in July 2009 — I find myself examining the gun. I could buy that rifle online, including all the accessories, with minimal difficulty. I can’t go back to Afghanistan, at least not now. I can’t be 25 again. I can’t recapture the fear or the wonderment or the grief — for a recently deceased friend — that I felt in that instant. But the weapon I carried could be mine again, with only slight variations. I could once again own a little part of that regrettable era.
But I don’t want an assault rifle. I don’t want to be back in Afghanistan either. I’ve shot thousands of rounds, and I’ve seen the effects of the bullets’ impact, and I want nothing of it. A friend of mine, himself an Army Special Forces officer with numerous combat deployments, agonized over the massacre in Orlando: “People who say they need an AR for hunting or home defense often don’t understand the weapon’s ballistics or overpenetration,” he said. “ARs cause horrific damage to humans; that’s why the military developed them.” He continued: “If you want to shoot an AR so bad, please feel free to join the fight against ISIS in the military.”
Another friend, a young soldier I once supervised, told me that he prefers AR-15s for home defense — and he has worked as a civilian firearms instructor. “With the small size of the bullet, the high velocity and low recoil, it’s easier to be accountable for each shot you fire than with something like a pistol or shotgun,” he said. I’ve seen a corpse with its organs knocked out from the impact of 5.56-millimeter rounds from an M-4. But my former soldier has a point, too: when the bullet hits paper, you’d think someone had poked a hole with a pencil.
When my unit returned from Afghanistan, I rented a house in Anchorage. It was the first time I’d slept alone since leaving America. I woke up in sheer terror. I wanted my M-4. I was unarmed, and I could hear pedestrian traffic. They could just walk into my house and shoot me if they wanted.
A few days later, I forgot to check my blind spot while driving, and I nearly struck a pickup truck. The driver ran out of his vehicle to scream at me. I reached for my ghost appendage, for the M-4 that I would have held between my legs had I still been on a convoy mission, still inside a Humvee. I felt naked without it. He could have just shot me.
This fear may seem irrational. It wasn’t at the time. I carried an M-4 because I was an infantryman in a combat zone fighting a brutal and fruitless war of occupation, and I had to be ready to fire rounds into human targets in an instant, lest they shoot me first. These weapons are intended for the battlefield. I don’t want an assault rifle, because I don’t want to think of my home country as a battlefield. I don’t want civilians to own assault rifles, because I think the risks outweigh the rewards. If people really do believe that they need them, maybe it’s because they see a battlefield where others don’t.
A few days after the traffic incident in Anchorage, while jogging amid melting March slush on a park trail, I found myself startled — a teenage kid was running close behind me, a kid clad in all black, just playing around. In the instant before recognition, before I processed that this was an adolescent without a weapon, before I identified him as safe, I raised my arms as though moving my rifle to the high ready position. I slid my thumb across the screen of my music player as though it were the selector lever moving from safe to semi, ready to put rounds downrange. Because my hands remembered.
I don’t want to believe that we live in a place so dangerous as to require these weapons. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I’m just waiting to be victimized. I’d rather be naïve and hopeful than face the alternative: the howling terror, the sensation that danger is kept at bay only by that familiar weight, those familiar clicks, and what comes after.
Nate Bethea served as a United States Army infantry officer from 2007 to 2014. He is a teacher with Voices From War, a creative-writing workshop for veterans and their families.