GENERAL CONFUSION: McChrystal’s Share of the Gun Control Task

With over 30 years of distinguished military service in and around elite and secretive “meat-eating” special forces commands, retired Army General Stanley McChrystal is not the most qualified to speak on what is essentially a civil society and civil rights issue.  

By Jeff MORAN | Geneva

The American media echo chamber ranging from CNN to Fox News has given disproportionate weight to confusing and misleading statements made by retired General Stanley McChrystal on the topic of rifles in American society.

It started on January 8, 2013 when McChrystal appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program to promote his memoir, My Share of the Task.  About six minutes into the ten minute interview, because the high profile rifle ban advocate Mayor Michael Bloomberg was up next, McChrystal was asked to comment about the rifle used in the Newtown tragedy and whether it has a place in American civil society.  McChrystal responded by saying:

“I spent a career carrying typically either an M16 or an M4 Carbine.  An M4 Carbine fires a .223 caliber round which is 5.56 mm at about 3000 feet per second.  When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating.  It’s designed for that.  That’s what our soldiers ought to carry.  I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America.”

The problem with McChrystal’s comments is that he was speaking of his military issue rifles as a former soldier when the question at hand was about civilian rifles in civil society.  And so, with this, McChrystal destroyed his credibility in the current gun control debate and positioned himself clearly as a firearms and ammunition prohibitionist.  His remarks, taken to their logical conclusion, mean he is in favor of banning most rifles and ammunition used for hunting anything other than small game and plinking, and, by implication, outlawing firearms hunts for medium and big game, and some internationally accepted competitive rifle shooting sports.

Whether he understood what he was saying or not, McChrystal layered more confusion on top of a growing mountain of misinformation and misplaced public outcry for arbitrary restrictions on commonly used arms and ammunition for self-defense, hunting, and other shooting sports.  He had a perfect opportunity to provide clarity, raise relevant facts, and make imperative distinctions and did not.  McChrystal’s comments demand corrections and clarifications, which he should make himself if he indeed misunderstood the question and/or misspoke:

1.  The rifle found inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown was not a military issue M-16 or M-4 and this kind of weaponry is not legally on “on the streets” today.

The military issue M-16 and the M-4 are effectively banned from the general public already.  It is important to also clarify that the military M-16 or M-4 can fire like machine guns, and are the real “assault rifles” in the truest sense of this term.  Military issue rifles such as the M-16 or M-4 are properly known as “selective fire” rifles because the shooter can mechanically turn a switch to select between firing multiple or single rounds of ammunition with one pull of the trigger.  While some private persons (e.g.  security professionals, specialty training schools, relic collectors) may go through special federal licensing to legally possess and use selective fire guns or machine guns, both types of firearms have essentially been regulated out of the hands of the general American public for nearly 80 years.  The first wave of American laws to do this was the National Firearms Act of 1934, which was amended in 1968 and 1986.

2.  The rifle found inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown  was not a selective fire “assault weapon,” it was a semi-automatic rifle.

Official investigators  clarified on January 18, 2013 that the rifle recovered inside Sandy Hook Elementary School during the Newtown massacre was an XM-15, a civilian version of the M-16 made by Bushmaster.  The similarities between the Newtown rifle and the military M-16 and M-4 are essentially cosmetic.  Mechanically it is different in that it does not have a selective firing switch enabling multiple shots with one pull (and release) of the trigger.  The XM-15 fire selector switch has just two possible options: mechanical safe and semi-automatic.  Semi-automatic firearms shoot and load only one round of ammunition automatically with one pull of the trigger.  Semi-automatic rifles, pistols, or shotguns have been in use for over 100 years.  Semi-automatic firearms are commonly used for self-defense and so banning any classes of them at the federal or state level would be unconstitutional in light of the 2008 Heller and the 2010 MacDonald decisions of the US Supreme Court.

3.  The ammunition designed for the rifle recovered from the Newtown crime scene is not particularly devastating as far as rifle ammunition goes.

The Newtown shooter’s rifle was chambered for  .223 Remington ammunition, which is a center-fire rifle cartridge.  The military’s 5.56 mm cartridge is based on the .223 Remington and there are some differences.  Within the center-fire rifle ammunition universe, the 5.56 mm and .223 Remington rounds are considered light duty rounds mired in decades of controversy surrounding their capabilities on battlefields and hunting fields.  Concerns and controversy about the effectiveness of the 5.56 mm round for the military go back to the adoption of the M-16 by the US military in the 1960s.  Bullet design innovations in the past 10 years have helped compensate for the limitations of the 5.56 mm and .223 Remington in combat and for some types of hunting.  Both types of ammunition remain relatively underpowered within the universe of other options available however.  Ultimately, identifying these types of ammunition as unfit for civil society makes no sense without including all the other rifle ammunition that is more powerful.

4.  The US military’s M-16 and M-4 chambered in standard 5.56 mm is not especially devastating as far as military rifles go, and is regarded as generally unsuitable by American special forces.

The M-16 and the M-4 variant is one of many military service rifles found in the world, and many of these are chambered for much more powerful ammunition.  The reasons for the Army adopting the M-16 in 5.56 mm in the 1960s had less to do with lethality and more to do with business marketing savvy, political connections, and the logistical implications of ammunition size and weight.  In fact, the semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle issued to American GI’s in World War II and even the bolt-action M1903 rifle from World War I are considered to be much more lethal and more capable at greater distances.  This was because the M1 and M1903 were chambered for the massive .30-06 cartridge, known to be devastating even after shooting through tree trunks and brick walls where the comparatively light 5.56mm round can be radically deflected by woodland twigs and light crosswinds.  Because of the deficiencies of the standard 5.56 mm round, the US special forces community developed and used much more effective alternatives over the past decade.  Chapter eleven of Alexander Rose’s outstanding American Rifle: A Biography  contains an authoritative history of the controversial adoption of the M-16, and the US military’s fraught history with the  acquisition of service rifles in general.

5.  Traditional deer and big game hunting ammunition is much more powerful than the 5.56 mm and .223 Remington rounds.

Most other ammunition common in medium and large game hunting is substantially more powerful than the military’s non-expanding 5.56 mm ammunition.  This stems from an 1868 international declaration and the modern use of more massive and expanding hunting bullets, which, with comparable velocities, tend to transfer lethal energy to a target in multiples of the energy found in the military’s 5.56 mm round.  Even a traditional 12 gauge shotgun normally used for duck hunting but equipped with slower moving and much more massive slugs (as opposed to shot) can be considerably more lethal.  In fact, using a shotgun with slugs for deer hunting is often required by law where rifles, by virtue of their longer-range, pose higher risks to people living near hunting areas.

6.  The 5.56 mm and .223 Remington rounds are actually considered inhumane for some game hunting…not because they are too powerful, but because they are too weak.

Ethical hunting entails precise and powerful ammunition that will kill animals quickly and cleanly with one shot.  Shooting game with underpowered ammunition can prolong unnecessary animal suffering and may not even be lethal if the shot is not well placed.  Hunting with underpowered ammunition is therefore considered inhumane by hunters, conservationists, and hunting regulators.  For example, state wildlife management authorities in Minnesota actively discourage hunters from using any ammunition less powerful than the .270 Winchester on the first page of their 2012 moose hunting regulation.  The .270 Winchester bullet travels at about the same speed as the 5.56 mm and .223 Remington rounds, yet the overall cartridge and bullet are much more massive and theoretically capable of delivering over twice the kinetic energy to a target.


Stanley McChrystal’s confusing commentary on January 8 unfortunately added to his legacy of credibility problems and may signal serious antipathy toward armed citizens and their civil rights.

McChrystal should know that his statements imply he supports banning virtually all civilian center-fire rifles and shotguns, the ammunition for these, and outlawing entire classes of hunting except for small game and waterfowl.  McChrystal should know that his statements imply he supports banning any kind of rifle competition that involves ammunition more powerful than or equal to the 5.56 mm or .223 Remington in addition to the constructive disarmament of civil society with respect to self-defense.  McChrystal should know that fueling a fire for an arbitrary and unconstitutional banning of 5.56 mm and .223 Remington ammunition and military look-alike rifles shamefully feeds into rising social bigotry against all armed Americans, including hunters and competitors.  Finally, McChrystal should know his comments strongly indicate he does not support the Constitution or the check against tyranny and illegal lethal aggression that is the Second Amendment.

Retired General McChrystal, like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, is simply insensitive to and out of touch with the civil rights concerns of armed Americans.  But at least McChrystal has a decent reason for this: for over 30 years he operated in a secret and sometimes warping world not especially known for its human rights advocacy.  Nevertheless, he did promote misinformation and confusion during a time of intense civil society debate on firearms policy.  Why?  Perhaps ambition and political savvy have General Stanley McChrystal now aiming for a new career as Representative, Senator, or even President Stanley McChrystal someday.  Whatever his goals, unless he retracts or clarifies his statements, industry, hunting, and civil society arms rights advocates now have unambiguous indicators he is their foe on the modern American civil rights battlefield.


About The Author

Jeff Moran, a Principal at TSM Worldwide LLC, specializes in the international defense, security, and shooting sports industries.  Previously Mr. Moran was a strategic marketing leader for a multi-billion dollar unit of a public defense & aerospace company, an American military diplomat, and a nationally ranked competitive rifle shooter.  He is currently studying international humanitarian and human rights law with the Executive LL.M. Program of the Geneva Academy.  Mr. Moran has an Executive Master in International Negotiation from the Graduate Institute of Geneva, an MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, and a BSFS from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.


First Published: 15 January 2013.
Last Updated: 20 January 2013.


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