What the AR-15 Does to a Child's Body
Best of Morning Shots
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m away, visiting my grandkids in France. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be offering encores of some of most notable Morning Shots of the Year. This one is from June 1, 2022.
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People visit a memorial in the town square for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 26, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas(Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
What if we saw the pictures?
At the moment, the question is academic, since no one can really bear the thought of seeing them. But what if we saw the pictures of children blown apart by America’s most popular gun?
Journalism professor Susie Linfield writes in The New York Times:
Photographic images can bring us close to the experience of suffering — and, in particular, to the physical torment that violence creates — in ways that words do not. What does the destruction of a human being, of a human body — frail and vulnerable (all human bodies are frail and vulnerable) — look like? What can we know of another’s suffering? Is such knowledge forbidden — or, alternately, necessary? And if we obtain it, what then?
The idea of showing pictures of dead kids was floated by film maker Michael Moore after Sandy Hook, and more recently by Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security.
Maybe it’s naïve to think that even the most graphic pictures would really make a difference. But they have in the past. Think about the impact of the photo of Emmett Till lying in his open casket, a victim of racist violence; or the picture of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. The picture of a drowned Syrian three-year-old boy shocked the world into addressing the migrant crisis. After WWII, German citizens were forced to witness the horrors of the concentration camps, and the images of the atrocities still haunt our collective conscience.
But showing the children may simply be too much. And it’s certainly too much to ask the families of those children.
Some journalists have instead suggested showing the scenes of carnage rather than the victims. After Taliban “fighters” attacked a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and killed at least 134 schoolchildren, pictures of bloody classrooms were published by some wire services.
But journalists are usually denied access to crime scenes here, so we are left with the descriptions of what we cannot—and most likely will never—see.
***WARNING … GRAPHIC CONTENT***
Via Wired: What an AR-15 Can Do to the Human Body: When a patient is shot by an AR-15, it "looks like a grenade went off in there."
“The AR-15 is America’s most popular rifle,” the magazine wrote six years ago. “It has also been the weapon of choice in mass shootings from Sandy Hook to Aurora to San Bernardino. In Orlando, the shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX, an AR-15 style rifle originally developed for special ops, to kill 49 people in the Pulse nightclub.”
May 24, 2022: Shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 21 dead.
May 14, 2022: Shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, NY. 10 dead.
August 31, 2019: Shooting in Midland, Texas. 7 dead.
August 4, 2019: AR-15-style pistol used in shooting at Ned Peppers Bar in Dayton, Ohio. 9 dead.
August 3, 2019: AK-47-style rifle used in shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. 23 dead.
Feb. 14, 2018: Shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 17 dead.
Nov. 5, 2017: Shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. 26 dead.
Oct. 1, 2017: Shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. 58 dead.
But this is abstract. Impersonal. A series of numbers, rather than images of the reality that none of us could bear.
We still need to ask the question: Why is the AR-15 so lethal, and what would it do to the body of a child? Wired explained in 2016:
The bullet from an AR-15 does an entirely different kind of violence to the human body. It’s relatively small, but it leaves the muzzle at three times the speed of a handgun bullet. It has so much energy that it can disintegrate three inches of leg bone. “It would just turn it to dust,” says Donald Jenkins, a trauma surgeon at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. If it hits the liver, “the liver looks like a jello mold that’s been dropped on the floor.” And the exit wound can be a nasty, jagged hole the size of an orange.
These high-velocity bullets can damage flesh inches away from their path, either because they fragment or because they cause something called cavitation. When you trail your fingers through water, the water ripples and curls. When a high-velocity bullet pierces the body, human tissues ripples as well---but much more violently. The bullet from an AR-15 might miss the femoral artery in the leg, but cavitation may burst the artery anyway, causing death by blood loss. A swath of stretched and torn tissue around the wound may die. That’s why, says Rhee, a handgun wound might require only one surgery but an AR-15 bullet wound might require three to ten.
The Intercept has more details. “AR-15s Were Made to Explode Human Bodies. In Uvalde, the Bodies Belonged to Children.”
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…. 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.
And finally, via The Atlantic: “What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland…”
In a typical handgun injury, which I diagnose almost daily, a bullet leaves a laceration through an organ such as the liver. To a radiologist, it appears as a linear, thin, gray bullet track through the organ. There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments.
I was looking at a CT scan of one of the mass-shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who had been brought to the trauma center during my call shift. The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively. How could a gunshot wound have caused this much damage?
The reaction in the emergency room was the same. One of the trauma surgeons opened a young victim in the operating room, and found only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet from an AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle that delivers a devastatingly lethal, high-velocity bullet to the victim. Nothing was left to repair—and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done to fix the problem. The injury was fatal.
Once again, the point needs to be emphasized: Wounds from AR-15s are dramatically different from other types of gunshots.
Routine handgun injuries leave entry and exit wounds and linear tracks through the victim’s body that are roughly the size of the bullet. If the bullet does not directly hit something crucial like the heart or the aorta, and the victim does not bleed to death before being transported to our care at the trauma center, chances are that we can save him.
The bullets fired by an AR-15 are different: They travel at a higher velocity and are far more lethal than routine bullets fired from a handgun. The damage they cause is a function of the energy they impart as they pass through the body. A typical AR-15 bullet leaves the barrel traveling almost three times faster than—and imparting more than three times the energy of—a typical 9mm bullet from a handgun. An AR-15 rifle outfitted with a magazine with 50 rounds allows many more lethal bullets to be delivered quickly without reloading.
I have seen a handful of AR-15 injuries in my career. Years ago I saw one from a man shot in the back by a swat team. The injury along the path of the bullet from an AR-15 is vastly different from a low-velocity handgun injury. The bullet from an AR-15 passes through the body like a cigarette boat traveling at maximum speed through a tiny canal. The tissue next to the bullet is elastic—moving away from the bullet like waves of water displaced by the boat—and then returns and settles back. This process is called cavitation; it leaves the displaced tissue damaged or killed. The high-velocity bullet causes a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path. It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding. Exit wounds can be the size of an orange.
Exit take: Here’s a modest suggestion. Rather than publish the pictures, we should force legislators to look at them in closed sessions before voting on gun safety measures.
Despite the very real dangers of exploitation and misuse that disclosure of the Uvalde photographs would pose, I myself would like politicians to view them: to look — really look — at the shattered face of what was previously a child and to then contemplate the bewildered terror of her last moments on earth.
Would that make a difference? Sadly, probably not, because our capacity for indifference and rationalization is apparently infinite. And the gun issue has become entangled in our larger culture war.
Charlie, you're absolutely right, the .223 cartridge (5.56 x 45 for the military) is roughly 3x faster than a typical 9 mm. But that doesn't mean the velocity is achieved because it's shot from an AR-type rifle. It's because it's from a rifle, with a longer barrel, period. The muzzle velocity of a 30-06 ranges from 2400 feet per second to 3400 fps (dependent upon load and bullet weight). A .308 (7.62 x 51 for the military) also ranges from 2600 to 3100 fps. A .357 magnum gets 1240 fps from a handgun, but can get to 2200 fps from a rifle.
My point? Almost all rifles fire bullets that go much faster than handguns. Cavitation is not unique to AR guns.
The AR is popular because the .223/5.56 round is relatively light-recoiling, so it's easy to shoot many rounds quickly. Although semi-automatics are also made in .308 and 30-06 calibers (for example), those rounds are not as fun (or as controllable) to shoot fast.
The .223/5.56 round is also comparatively light and cheap. A 30 round, fully-loaded magazine only weighs a pound. You can buy 1000 rounds of 5.56 ammo for $500. Comparing to a .308, a one-pound magazine carries 20 rounds, and 200 rounds cost about $350.
Nobody hunts deer with a 30 round magazine. In Florida, the maximum magazine capacity while deer hunting is 5 rounds. In Ohio, 3. In Colorado, 6. (Though to be fair, some states -- Texas and Montana, for example -- have no such restriction.)
IMHO, the real human slaughter problem stems from the semi-automatic firing action plus large capacity magazines, neither of which is useful for hunters. Large capacity, lightweight while fully-loaded magazines, coupled with semi-automatic actions, are the common denominator in most mass-shootings.
(All statistics from Professor Google.)
What I will never understand is why the 2A militia movement thinks they need these weapons to oppose a domestic government that has gone full tyranny:
I was part of an occupying force across three deployments during the years when we lost the most Soldiers/Marines in combat ('04-'08), and I can tell you first hand that AK-47s were *not* the thing that killed the majority of us. The things that killed the majority of us were well-placed roadside bombs that bypassed our armor. The next worst thing were snipers who could place well-aimed shots on our chest/head where the body armor didn't cover. The standard US infantryman carries four plates of ceramic armor around his torso, and these plates can stop about x3 7.62x39mm AK-47 bullets before they break and let bullets into the torso. If you go after an American infantryman (and about 24+ of his buddies) using a small group of guys using AR-15s, that small group of guys is going to get destroyed by overwhelming return fire. We ran this experiment so many times in Iraq. Every time guys came at us with AK-47s they died. It was the kind of thing we wanted them to do. Instead, they got wise and started burying bombs in the ground so that they could kill us even with all of our armor without having to expose themselves to the return fire. THAT is how they started killing us in significant numbers, not with small groups of guys running around with assault rifles. This notion that the domestic 2A group uses to justify owning an assault rifle (that they need it to oppose domestic government) is ridiculous on its face because we know after 20 years of fighting an insurgency where the bad guys were trying to kill those same US government troops with bombs and sniper rifles that those weapons are immensely more effective against US troops than an AR-15 or AK-47 were. Like, we knooowwwww this.
The only thing assault rifles do for this country is make it easier for crazy people to kill a whole lot of unarmed innocents in less than the time it takes for the police to get there. THAT is what they do on the civilian market. You can shoot competitions without needing a 30-round magazine. Just change the course of fire for the competition and your need for more bullets per magazine goes away if you're really that into firearms competitions.