In the weeks following the deadly shootings at high schools in Kentucky and Florida, Gov. Matt Bevin has made plain his views on gun violence in America. Gun violence, it seems, doesn’t have much to do with guns.
“Fifty to 100 years ago children did not slaughter other children at school,” Bevin explained on Fox News. “What has changed? It isn’t the gun.”
To be clear up front: I am not a specialist in the history of gun policy or gun technology in the 20th century. But I am a historian, and our profession tends to subscribe to the idea that most things do, in fact, change over time. Firearms are no exception.
Let’s take, as an example, the AR-15, which Nikolas Cruz wielded in the deadly Parkland, Fla., mass shooting on Valentine’s Day. At Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Adam Lanza killed 27 people, mostly children between six and seven, with the same model.
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Assault-style rifles like the AR-15 didn’t exist 100 years ago. Modern assault rifles are products of World War II, developed first in Nazi Germany with the Sturmgewehr 44, then in the Soviet Union with the AK-47.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Army recruited civilian engineer Eugene Stormer to develop a nimble and reasonably accurate, automatic weapon. He produced the AR-15, which heavily influenced the design of the U.S. military’s most popular assault weapon: the M-16. Gun manufacturers began selling a semiautomatic civilian version of the AR-15 in the 1960s.
Civilian versions of the AR-15 have changed since then. According to a 2011 report from the non-partisan Violence Policy Center, design changes were made to skirt federal regulation on assault weapons. In response to a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994, gun producers made minor alterations to their post-ban assault-style firearms, rebranding them as “sporting rifles.”
Since the 1980s, other semiautomatic and military-style guns have entered the civilian marketplace, transforming the American gun-scape.
The Glock, a semiautomatic handgun with an unprecedented ammunition capacity of 17 bullets, arrived in the U.S. from Austria in 1988. It remains one of the most popular handguns in the nation. In 1987, a commercial photographer in Tennessee patented the Barrett .50 caliber anti-armor sniper rifle, a semiautomatic weapon purchased by the U.S. military and civilians alike.
The VPC reports that the Barrett snipers are “less regulated than handguns” and “one of the hottest items sold in the civilian market.”
Behind these deadly changes in technology — offering faster, lighter, more powerful and accurate weaponry — is an industry promoting the sale of “military-style” weapons. The VPC also reports that since the mid-1980s gun manufacturers, responding to slumping handgun sales, began aggressively advertising combat-style firearms.
Access to these guns has also changed considerably over time. Between 1968 and 1986, the Gun Control Act of 1968 banned gun dealers from selling at gun shows. A 1986 act reversed that decision. Gun shows have since proliferated across the U.S., along with state laws permitting private individuals to sell or trade guns without a background check at shows.
And in 2004, Congress allowed the ban on assault weapons to expire.
The solution to gun violence in our nation is not a simple one. It does, however, require a confrontation with the technology that makes it possible — along with the legislators, industry officials and interest groups that directly influence the accessibility and lethalness of this weaponry.
Guns have a history, Governor.
Alessandra Link of Louisville is a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.