Publisher’s note: Michael Fanone is a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst who spent 20 years with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. The opinions expressed here are my own. Read more opinions on CNN in Spanish.
(CNN) — No weapon has been more in the public eye in America lately than the AR-15, largely due to its tragic role in some of the the deadliest shootings in this country.
The AR-15 has the dubious distinction of being America’s most popular semi-automatic rifle. I’m more familiar with the gun than most people – I have one. And one thing I know for sure is that this weapon is not meant to be in the hands of the average civilian.
I have owned various firearms for most of my life. I spent two decades with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department in several different roles: both as a street cop walking around the city, as well as in various special mission units.
I am also a full member of the National Rifle Association. And when I wasn’t at my police job, I worked part-time for several years selling firearms, as well as training law enforcement officers, members of the military, and civilians.
I’ve bought my different guns over the years for the same reason you might buy a flat head screwdriver along with a Phillips screwdriver: each has a different purpose. As an avid hunter, I have one gun that I use for hunting turkeys, one that I use for waterfowl, and one that I use for hunting deer and larger game like elk.
I bought my AR-15 because I was assigned one as part of my police duties. But the agents were not allowed to take home the weapons provided by our Department. I felt it was my responsibility to become proficient with whatever weapon was assigned to me, so I bought one. And I’ve spent hundreds of hours training to be able to use it correctly.
I have sold guns in large retail stores and have also sold firearms in a small retail gun store. Some gun buyers have been misled into thinking the AR-15 is somehow practical for self-defense. But frankly, it’s the last weapon I’d recommend for that purpose.
Usually the motivation for buying the AR-15 is simple: people want one because they want one. Most of the time, the person who buys an AR-15 arrives at the store knowing that he intends to buy one.
I’ve pressed some customers on why they want an AR-15, but no one could find a legitimate justification for needing that particular gun.
Some members of the tinfoil hat brigade have responded, “We need these weapons because we want to be effective against the government if it becomes tyrannical. That’s part of our Second Amendment right.” Personally, I think it’s ridiculous, but it’s become an increasingly popular justification for buying a semi-automatic rifle.
What we should know about the AR-15
The AR-15 was turned over to law enforcement because more and more frequently police officers encountered these types of weapons on the street and realized they were outgunned. An example that comes to mind is the famous 1997 shooting in North Hollywood, California. at Bank of America.
In that incident, two individuals wearing bulletproof vests robbed a bank in the Los Angeles neighborhood. Responding cops literally had to run to a nearby gun store to buy more powerful weapons, because they were using 9mm pistols, while the bad guys were armed with semi-automatic rifles.
The match it was one of the most infamous shootings in the history of the United States, with 11 police officers injured (thankfully, none fatally) and the two robbery suspects shot dead. While it is an extreme example, it is in many ways the situation facing officers across the country: Police are simply outgunned in both semi-automatic and automatic firearms.
The bullet exiting the barrel of an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle can easily penetrate the target: the intruder or anyone you are using deadly force from to defend yourself or others.
But it will also go through the wall behind that person, and potentially through that room and onto the next wall. That power and precision are useful for military purposes, which is obviously what they were designed for. But it is much more power than should be in the hands of the average civilian.
The bullet fired from the AR-15 is capable of cutting through the body armor of an average police officer, like a knife through butter. SWAT teams and some of the more specialized units are often equipped with level IV Kevlar or steel plate armor, which would stop maybe two or three direct hits, but eventually the body armor breaks down after taking multiple hits.
A person wielding an AR-15 has a range of more than 270 meters. For an agent armed with a 9mm pistol, hitting the target at more than 45 meters will be difficult, even for the best marksman. A bullet fired from an AR-15 travels three times faster than that fired from a 9mm pistol. And magazines that can feed dozens of rounds into the gun in the space of minutes were clearly designed for battlefield use only.
The prevalence of these weapons means that police are sometimes outmatched, as we saw with the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month. In a situation where you have small children near the attacker, you want to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible.
But we all saw the tragic consequences at that elementary school, where police waited more than an hour before attacking the teenager who was armed with an AR-15 and who killed 19 young children and two teachers.
I have no doubt that the Uvalde police wish they had weapons as powerful as the one carried by the attacker who killed the victims at that school. But a much better outcome would have been if the attacker didn’t have an AR-15 in his hands in the first place.
AR-15s should be banned
Now that I’m no longer on the police force, my AR-15 collects dust in the safe. Rifle ranks that allow for the type of training required to use this weapon system effectively are few and far between and the cost of ammunition exceeding a dollar a round is more than this guy can afford, and already I don’t need it, but neither, to be honest, do most of the people who flock to gun stores to buy one of these.
Banning these powerful weapons from the civilian market is a no-brainer, as are universal background checks. Neither move is going to solve every weapon problem we have, but it would be a start.
And banning these AR-15s would not require confiscating them from people who already have them. Once you have made these weapons illegal, anyone found with one will be subject to arrest, as possession of these weapons would be a crime. I think you’re likely to see a lot of people opting to hand them over.
If banning them outright seems too extreme a solution to be politically acceptable, here’s another option: Reclassify semi-automatic rifles as Class 3 firearms.
That would mean that someone wishing to purchase an AR-15 would have to go through a background check, fingerprinting and review by an official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a process that takes between 12 and 16 months. And since Class 3 guns can’t be bought by people under the age of 21, it would solve the problem of emotionally unstable 18-year-olds buying them.
A Class 3 firearms reclassification would also make those who are approved to purchase these firearms subject to an annual verification that they comply with federal regulations regarding safe firearm storage, and to confirm that their license and other documents are up to date. All these hoops and obstacles will surely reduce the civilian demand for these weapons.
I cannot overstate how dangerous it is to have semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 in the hands of civilians. Our public officials have it in their power to help make it harder for people who shouldn’t have these guns to get them.
A police officer should never have to worry about being outgunned by the bad guy he’s protecting the public against.