As parents waited in anguish for news about their children following the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, they received a chilling request from police. Officers asked for DNA samples from parents to help establish the identities of the children who had been killed in the massacre, the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
The request pointed to the obvious, horrifying conclusion that many of the children who had been killed were so grievously injured that it was likely impossible to identify their bodies.
How we got here should be obvious: the AR-15 rifle.
Much has been made of how easily the killer, Salvador Ramos, strode into a store and bought two AR-15s the week before the attack, an apparent birthday gift to himself. Anyone paying attention gets that the ease of purchase for such weapons — which are frequently used in mass killings — is an indication of how deep the gun problem in America runs.
It cannot be emphasized enough, however, exactly what the AR-15 is: It is a weapon of war. It was made to blow humans apart. It is successful in doing just that. The requests for DNA tests in Uvalde stand as a testament to the gun’s success, but the conclusion that the weapon excelled at blowing people apart was well documented by the U.S. military itself during early field tests.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted a survey into the impact of the AR-15 and its use on the battlefield. To put it bluntly, the survey found that the weapon, chambered with same .223 caliber rounds that Ramos used in Uvalde, was exceedingly good at killing human beings.
A copy of the survey, which was published in a Gawker story by my now-colleague Sam Biddle in 2016, shows that Viet Cong fighters hit with the weapon were frequently decapitated and dismembered, many looking as though they had “exploded.” A field report documented how an AR-15 had blown up a man’s head and turned another’s torso into “one big hole.” The weapon was lauded by soldiers on the battlefield for its effectiveness at killing adversaries and even cutting through dense jungle forest.
Some of the reports on Viet Cong soldiers killed with the weapon read like a matter-of-fact recounting from a horror film: “Chest wound from right to left, destroyed the thoracic cavity,” said the description of one AR-15-inflicted wound. “Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode,” said another.
Though it has become available domestically in the years since, the weapon was made for war — no matter what the National Rifle Association says — and was noted even at the time as being a significant escalation in the lethality of rifles.
It is hard to comprehend a weapon like this being used against small children in an elementary school. The impact of the AR-15, a tool designed not just for killing but for ripping apart adult human bodies in the most extreme manner, being turned on the small, delicate limbs and organs of young children does not need to be imagined. The parents waiting outside the school in Uvalde for news of their loved ones who were asked for DNA tests were being clued into something horrifying about the types of weapons floating around American society, so easily available that even a disturbed 18-year-old could get his hands on them.
In the aftermath of mass shootings targeting children, it is sometimes suggested that the public should be allowed to see the bodies. The impact of seeing actual flesh-and-blood children killed by assault rifles might shake the sensibilities of Americans enough that they enact serious changes to gun control laws that would make it less likely that AR-15s would be used again for such massacres.
Public aside, however, the reality is that the government has known for a long time what these weapons do. It has been sending AR-15s to wars abroad for decades and has documented in graphic detail the exploded and mangled corpses left behind. That such knowledge exists, and yet AR-15s are still commercially available for use by civilians in this country, tells you all you need to know about what pro-gun politicians are willing to tolerate.
The horrifying reality, which we all know, is that there will be another Uvalde sooner or later. The AR-15 is a demon that was unleashed on foreigners during wartime and has now returned as a demon to victimize innocent Americans, including the most innocent among us. A machine designed for the mass killing and maiming of other people — a design that had nothing to do with hunting or sportsmanship — should not be on American streets. At the minimum, no one in public life should be allowed to deny what it really does.