Study shows AR-15s, "high capacity" magazines commonly owned

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

How many Americans own or have owned AR-15s and other modern sporting rifles? What about the number of gun owners with “high capacity” magazines in their possession?

According to gun control activists, these arms are so dangerous and unusual that they fall outside the Second Amendment’s protections, or at the very least those Second Amendment considerations should take a back seat to any government’s desire to ban them in the name of public safety.

But as Wake Forest University professor David Yamane, a self-proclaimed “liberal gun owner” who focuses on guns and gun culture, points out in a new video, a 2021 survey of gun owners indicates that these items aren’t unusual at all. In fact, they’re commonly owned by tens of millions of Americans.

That survey, overseen by Georgetown University Professor William English, quizzed more than 16,000 self-identified gun owners about their their ownership and use.

As Yamane points out in his video, according to English’s survey, about 30% of the gun owners in the survey reported having owned AR-15s or AR-style rifles either currently or in the past. Almost half (48%) of those gun owners surveyed acknowledged owning ammunition magazines that can accept more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Based on English’s estimate of the number of gun owners in the U.S., which he conservatively pegs at about 80-million people, that means that more than 25-million Americans have owned or currently possess an AR-style rifle, and about 40-million of us have owned or own a “high capacity” magazine.

In his video Yamane says that while he’s not an attorney and certainly not a Supreme Court justice, “if we look at one-third to half of gun owners, I would say that ownership of AR-15 style rifles and high or ‘standard’ capacity magazines is fairly common empirically.”

Why is this so important? Well, the Supreme Court opined back in Heller that “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons’” was in line with the Second Amendment, but didn’t delve deeply into what would be considered “unusual.” In 2016, the Court had a chance to revisit the issue in a case called Caetano v. Massachusetts, which dealt with that state’s ban on stun guns; a ban that the state argued was perfectly constitutional because stun guns are “unusual” in that they weren’t around when the Second Amendment was ratified and could not, therefore, be covered by the Second Amendment’s protections.

The Supreme Court disagreed, pointing out that Heller specifically stated that the Second Amendment doesn’t just protect those arms that were in existence at the time of its ratification and that “unusual” arms aren’t just those that weren’t in common use back in 1791.

Since then, though, the Court has been silent on the issue, while lower courts have upheld bans on modern sporting rifles and “high capacity” magazines, sometimes using the argument that these arms aren’t in common use and are therefore “unusual” items that fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment, and at times simply ignoring how commonly-owned these items are. In fact, the Supreme Court is currently considering whether to accept a challenge to Maryland’s ban on so-called assault weapons; a ban that was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in part by refusing to consider the commonality of semi-automatic rifles. As 25 Republican Attorneys General put in in their recent amicus brief urging the Court to take up the case:

Rather than asking whether law-abiding citizens commonly use a banned firearm for lawful purposes, the Fourth Circuit asks whether the firearm is most useful in military service. If so, the ban is upheld. Not only is that novel standard inconsitent with the Court’s existing Second Amendment jurisprudence, the standard leads to absurd results: a firearm declared most useful in military service is eligible for a ban regardless of whether the weapon is in common, lawful use by the civilian population (thus contradicting the military use conclusion). Correcting the Fourth Circuit’s wayward standard, in and of itself, justifies review.

It’s pretty clear that under the test the Court came up with in Heller, both modern sporting rifles and 10+ round magazines are protected by the Second Amendment. There’s no doubt both are in common use, and for a variety of lawful purposes ranging from self-defense to competitive shooting. But until the Supreme Court explicitly states that bans on these arms are unconstitutional, we’re going to continue to see states and courts abuse our right to keep and bear arms by ignoring just how common these arms really are.