2023 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom winner

American Icon

About the Project

The AR-15 is more than a weapon.

It is a potent symbol with a grip on the American imagination — a readily available and easy-to-use killing machine wielded during some of the country’s darkest moments, and a tactical weapon championed as the ultimate expression of Second Amendment rights. It is also a lucrative consumer product with a distinct appeal: The more controversial it becomes, the better it sells.

To explain the AR-15 and its impact in full, The Washington Post produced “American Icon,” an immersive, deeply reported and penetrating series exploring a phenomenon with a singular hold on a divided nation.

The series stemmed from interviews with more than 200 people with relevant firsthand experience — including firearms industry executives and lobbyists, gun owners, shooting survivors and victims’ families, lawmakers, trauma surgeons, first responders, activists, armed militants, academics and ballistics experts. The Post’s examination also relied on a review of more than 1,000 pages of documents, including internal company records, court and regulatory filings, and autopsy reports, many of them obtained through public records requests. And, in the most detailed poll of its kind to date, The Post partnered with Ipsos to survey hundreds of AR-15 owners about their reasons for having the weapon.

In “The gun that divides a nation,” Post reporters document how the AR-15’s rise over the past two decades was sparked by a dramatic reversal in strategy by the country’s biggest gunmakers to invest in a product that many in the industry had long viewed as anathema to their culture and traditions. The series also included a highly innovative animated story called “The Blast Effect,” which shows how AR-15 rounds eviscerate human bones, tissue and organs. It illustrates with haunting precision the wounds suffered by two victims of school shootings — Noah Pozner, 6, and Peter Wang, 15.

Taken together, the “American Icon” series added to the public’s understanding of the consequences of the AR-15’s rise. Readers are transported to Sutherland Springs, Tex., where nearly two dozen worshipers were killed in 2017, to learn about the debilitating physical and mental ailments that remain for those who survived. The series also points to a possible path to fewer deaths, citing gun violence experts and law enforcement veterans who say that restricting magazine sizes would limit the carnage.

Judges Comments

This is a story we all think we know, but the Washington Post still managed to talk about gun violence in a captivating, balanced way. It’s not easy reading, but ‘The Blast Effect’ in particular is a standout piece of journalism that makes a familiar conversation feel impactful again.