I wanted a personal insight into the US gun culture, so I went to learn how to fire an AR-15
ABC North America correspondent Zoe Daniel pictured with an AR-15 at a shooting range in Utah. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)
I’ve only just met my cousin Shane Baton, and we’re at an indoor gun range north of Salt Lake City where I’m learning how to shoot.
Shane was born and bred in Utah, and grew up with guns.
I’ve never even fired one.
We are worlds apart in our attitudes to gun ownership, but we’ve come together so I can get some personal insight into American gun culture.
As an Australian, and a journalist who covers America’s frequent mass shootings, it’s difficult to comprehend why so many people in the United States are so attached to their weapons.
Amid renewed debate over gun rights after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, my cousin has invited me to spend some time trying to understand.
He’s taking me through the features of bolt action and AR-15 rifles.
Zoe Daniel is instructed how to use an AR-15 by her American cousin Shane Baton. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)
Several others also take turns at shooting targets with everything from rifles to pistols, including his 18-year-old son Terry, who is using his own AR-15.
“It’s accurate, it’s lightweight, it’s easy to shoot,” says Shane about the AR-15, America’s most popular rifle.
“I think my youngest was eight when he shot it for the first time and it’s just very easy for him and for smaller-framed people. It’s just a great gun.”
Way out of my comfort zone
Having seen what military-grade weapons can do while covering war and civil unrest in Asia and Africa, I don’t even allow my children to have toy guns.
It’s especially intimidating because the AR-15 tends to be the weapon of choice for mass shooters, including the killer at Parkland.
But even taking into account my reluctance, the AR-15 is easy for me too.
Unlike the bolt action rifle, which is heavy and difficult to fire, the AR-15 feels light, easy to position and aim.
Terry Baton fires the AR-15, which is accurate, lightweight and easy to shoot. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)
Having entirely missed the target with the first weapon, I’m able to hit it several times with the AR-15.
“So what did you think about the difference between the two?” Shane asks me afterwards.
“It’s just a lot lighter and not as much kick,” I respond, in reference to the AR-15. “It seems just easier, more gentle.”
“And I think that’s what makes it so popular,” he replies. “I agree with you. That’s what I hoped you’d say.”
Many hobbyists like the AR-15 because they can build it at home, adding and subtracting features depending on the intended use.
But this weapon has been at the centre of the debate about gun control in America, with everything from increased age limits to closing background check loopholes to banning assault rifles being thrown up for discussion.
Renewed talk of reform has been met with NRA rhetoric about a liberal conspiracy to take guns away.
Shane is not an NRA member, but he does support the organisation.
“If we could educate people and stop spreading the fear … This is not an evil weapon, this is not a military-grade weapon,” he says.
“This is not even an assault rifle by definition, this is a sporting rifle.”
The definition of an “assault rifle” is highly contentious.
Gun advocates argue the AR-15 doesn’t qualify because it does not have the capacity to switch from semi-automatic to full machine gun mode without a converter.
Many shooters in America oppose any laws which take guns out of their hands. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)
However, the federal government defines “military style” weapons as both semi- and full-automatics that are capable of firing multiple rounds.
The AR-15 is a semi-automatic, civilian version of the military’s M16.
Widespread ownership among Americans
According to Pew Research, there are between 270 million and 310 million guns in America, owned by just over a third of the population.
Some 46 per cent of adults in Utah own a gun, which is well above the US average.
Most cite self-defence and sport as reasons to have a weapon and roughly 60 per cent oppose a ban on assault rifles.
“What I’m worried about is that, ultimately, kneejerk reactions that don’t do anything,” says Shane.
It’s a common refrain.
Many Americans fear a ‘slippery slope’ that could result from increased gun control, gradually eroding their independence and sense of freedom.
They want existing laws enforced rather than new ones being introduced.
“So let’s say we give this a try and we ban this. Fine, let’s ban it,” he says.
“What happens when it doesn’t affect it and doesn’t do anything? Do I get it back? No, I don’t.
“Then they move on to ban something else. And when that doesn’t work, do I get that back? No! Then they move on to ban something else.”
Shane describes a childhood of hunting and camping in the wild, a way of life that Americans outside the large cities are determined to defend.
Being able to own whichever gun they choose is part of that.
There’s also a desire for self-defence that’s particular to America, where some don’t believe that law enforcement will be able to provide timely help.
They raise concerns that banning semi-automatics would lead to criminals having powerful weapons disadvantaging civilians who would be left unable to defend their homes and families.
Some also have a deeply ingrained desire to be able to protect themselves and their state from the federal government, if needed.
Experiencing the ease of shooting an AR-15 first hand, you can easily grasp why many Americans choose it for sport and self-defence.
It’s also clear to see why it’s the weapon of choice for the mass shooter and in that sense it’s a little chilling.
“It kills people in the wrong hands,” says Shane.
“It kills people. So, are we going to get rid of guns all together? No. Not in America.
“I want to have the honest conversation and focus on the true problem, which is not the gun.”
According to Shane and many Americans, the deep social issues affecting the country, including gaps in parenting and lack of male role models, are the real issue.
“It’s not the firearm, it’s the culture,” he says.
But does that justify resisting any reform that could make a difference when children are being killed at school?
To many Australians, the answer may seem obvious. But we grew up in a very different culture.
Many shooters in America believe gaps in parenting and a lack of male role models are the real issue. (ABC News: Adrian Wilson)