-Biden, remarks on the safe communities act at the White House, July 11
Several readers asked about the president’s comment this week that a round of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle travels five times faster than any other weapon. When we asked about the evidence for this claim, a White House official pointed to his July remarks — “almost twice as fast” — as a more accurate statement.
Translation: the president missed the stat the second time around. As is often the case with Biden, a carefully crafted sentence in his prepared text was featured in his story weeks later.
Still, we were curious about what academic research shows.
First, Biden was clearly wrong in his statement this week.
“President Biden’s statement that a bullet fired from an AR-15 travels 5 times faster than a bullet fired from ‘any other gun’ is false,” said law professor E. Gregory Wallace at Campbell University who closely examined the lethality of AR-15s, in an email. “His statement that the AR-15 bullet can penetrate soft Kevlar vests worn by law enforcement is correct.” But Wallace added that the statement lacked context: “It’s true of almost everything centerfire rifle bullets. Body armor protection against rifle bullets requires steel, ceramic or composite plates.
A 2016 academic study by a group of trauma surgeons led by Peter Rhee, titled “Gunshot Wounds: An Examination of Ballistics, Bullets, Weapons and Myths,” examined the muzzle velocity of various firearms. Muzzle velocity is the speed at which the bullet leaves the gun barrel. This is then used to calculate the muzzle energy, which equals the injury potential. The farther a bullet travels from a gun, the less energy and wounding power it has.
A .44 magnum handgun, for example, has a muzzle velocity of 1,550 feet per second, according to the study. A 9mm handgun, the most popular, has a muzzle velocity of 1,200 feet per second.
Meanwhile, an AR-15 5.56 caliber weapon is pointing at 3,251 feet per second. It would be almost three times faster than the 9mm handgun.
“Muzzle velocity is determined by several factors including bullet size and weight and barrel length, but typically .223 or 5.56 rounds typically fired from AR-15s have a velocity between 2000 and 3000 feet per second (fps),” Wallace said. “Handguns, on the other hand, fire rounds at slower velocities, with 9mm rounds in the 1000-1100 fps range and .45 caliber rounds in the 900-1000 fps range. . Centerfire rifle cartridges (e.g. not .22 caliber rifles) generally have higher velocities than handguns.
Within these parameters, the more cautious phrase Biden uttered in July – “the most common rounds fired from an AR-15 travel almost twice as fast as those from a handgun” even slightly underestimates the case.
But Wallace also said the “more important point [Biden] seems to do about AR-15s is that they are more lethal or dangerous than “all other guns” due to their high velocity rounds. …Given all relevant factors, including speed, the AR-15 is deadlier than some firearms, but less deadly than others. At 100 yards, the AR-15’s velocity is only slightly faster than most shotguns.
In a 2020 article for the Tennessee Law Review, Wallace criticized several legal decisions that he said assumed AR-15s were more lethal than other firearms. “The AR-15’s rate of fire is virtually identical to non-prohibited semi-automatic handguns, rifles, and shotguns,” he wrote. “Its accuracy is better than some firearms but worse than others. Like any rifle, its bullets generally cause more severe wounds than handguns, but not as severe as larger caliber shotguns and target rifles.
Regular readers know that we don’t play gotcha, so this won’t be graded. Biden got his talking point correct in July, while spoiling it in August. In the interest of keeping presidential statements correct, the White House should correct the official transcript with a note that Biden should have said twice, instead of five times. Readers should also be aware that the muzzle velocity comparison may say less about AR-15 lethality than Biden is implying.
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