President Barack Obama, speaking to the National Urban League on Wednesday evening, sounded a call for gun control–and revealed his apparent ignorance about the U.S. military in the process. Obama told the audience that “AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals.” However, the U.S. military does not generally use the AK-47, a weapon originally developed in the Soviet Union that was subsequently adopted by many other communist states. The AK-47 also became the weapon of choice for guerilla armies and terrorist groups.
Today, AK-47s are typically to be found among enemy forces that U.S. troops encounter on the battlefield. Osama bin Laden was often filmed or photographed near his AK-47 rifle–and was killed by U.S. Navy Seals when he reached for it. (Update: Yes, bin Laden preferred a newer, updated version of the weapon, the AK-74.) The former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also released video footage of himself taking target practice with an AK-47. (Update: Other videos featured the AK-47; the target practice was with a recovered American M249 rifle.) Taliban forces in Afghanistan use the AK-47 in attacks on NATO forces. There are some allied forces that also use the AK-47, and the CIA once funneled AK-47s to “friendly” militias. Occasionally, members of specialized units may use the AK-47 in the field. Practically, however, as well as symbolically, the AK-47 is a weapon not typically associated with American soldiers.
The AK-47 is popular among private owners–as well as irregular armies in third world countries–because it is small, easily maintained, and relatively inexpensive. It is possible to obtain AK-47s on the black market in formerly war-torn countries such as Mozambique, for example, for as little as 10 U.S. dollars. Some argue that the U.S. should adopt the AK-47 (or a variant thereof) to replace the M-16 and M-4 rifles. For now, however, it is not typically supplied to, nor carried by, U.S. combat soldiers, as President Obama ought to know.
Though President Obama has cultivated an image of a strong and decisive commander-in-chief–partly through apparent White House leaks of military secrets–he has frequently demonstrated an elementary lack of familiarity with the basic facts about the forces he leads. At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2010, for example, he referred to U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsmen as “corpse-men,” mispronouncing the word.
Whether the error of an errant speechwriter, or the choice of the president himself, the use of the AK-47 metaphor in Obama’s speech reveals a lack of knowledge about the U.S. military–and a possible lingering romanticism about the guerilla forces often lionized by the radicals among whom Obama began his political career.