A Warner Robins man is at the forefront of one of the most divisive and emotional issues in America today.
Chris Waltz, an infantry veteran of the Army and Marines, is the founder and CEO of AR-15 Gun Owners of America. The weapon commonly referred to as an assault rifle — a term Waltz disputes — is itself under assault like never before.
The gun has been used in a string of mass shootings, most recently a school shooting in Florida in which 17 people were killed. Since that tragedy, Waltz has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, NBC, CNN and Fox Business about his belief that the guns should not be banned.
"There are people who use this rifle responsibly and safely every single day," he said. "You are penalizing the whole nation for what one mad man did."
He started the group in 2013 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. That also sparked anti-AR-15 sentiment, and it prompted Waltz to start a Facebook page called AR-15 Gun Owners of America.
Within days, he had thousands of "likes," or positive feedback given to a post on social media, and today the page shows 582,000 likes.
When he started the page, he soon noticed that people were sharing photos of AR-15s and exchanging tips. Then people starting asking for merchandise, so Waltz had a logo made and began selling items such as patches and shirts. He eventually started selling AR-15 parts and accessories, and today he has turned it into a full-scale business with an office on Watson Boulevard — and seven employees.
People who want to ban the weapon — and others like it — say it is made for the military and has no business in civilian hands.
Waltz, of course, rejects that argument. For starters, he says it is not an assault rifle. That designation, he says, belongs to the fully-automatic weapons that the military uses. An AR-15 is semiautomatic, which means it fires each time the trigger is pulled. With an automatic weapon, the trigger is pulled and bullets fire until the trigger is released.
The "AR" designation is often presumed to stand for assault rifle, but it actually derives from Armalite, the original manufacturer.
A common hunting rifle or pistol, Watz says, can be just as deadly, and each can hold high-capacity magazines like the AR-15. He noted that the man who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 used only handguns.
"If you want to kill people, there are ways of doing it," he said. "Banning a rifle is not the answer."
And he says there are plenty of legitimate reasons to have one. Among uses he listed are hunting, home defense, varmint control and competition.
"It’s very versatile," Waltz said. "It's just an easy, lightweight rifle."
The AR-15 is commonly used in Georgia to hunt wild hogs, which are an invasive species and a widespread problem, he said.
Waltz does see room for compromise, though. In recent days, President Trump voiced support for some gun regulations, including banning rapid-fire gun bump stocks and raising the age someone can buy a gun from 18 to 21. Waltz said he doesn't necessarily believe those two things would make a difference, but he's not especially inclined to fight those proposals either.
(Bump stocks are designed to use the recoil action of the gun to allow it to fire more rapidly, like an automatic weapon. But Waltz said the stocks also significantly erode accuracy so he doesn't use them.)
Trump said Wednesday he was drafting an executive order to ban bump stocks. Later in the week, he appeared to back off his earlier support for gun-control measures.
Waltz said he supports mental health being tied to the background check when a gun is purchased. Currently that check looks only at criminal records, not mental health problems.
He made the comments before firing some of his rifles at the Marion Road Gun Club in Bibb County. Kyle Turner, president of the club and a former Army artilleryman, said AR-15s are probably the most common weapon he sees at the range. He owns a few himself and shoots the guns in competition.
Asked why anyone would need an AR-15, Turner responded, "Why does anybody need anything? It's not a matter of need. It's a matter of want and it’s a matter of pre-existing, God-given right that shall not be infringed."