The AR-15 is a household name even if you don’t own one. The weapon has a certain notoriety from violence: in 2011, a Brooklyn man fired an AR-15 on teenagers. In March, Albuquerque police used an AR-15 to take down a suspect. Earlier this month, police arrested a Pennsylvania fellow armed with two such rifles who was hoping to die in combat. And lest we forget, there were nightmarish displays of the AR in Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. Yet this weapon is more than deadly. . . it’s a popular product widely marketed to everyday consumers.
The AR-15 is a modern colloquialism, a reference to the civilian versions of the classic M-16 invented by ArmaLite and licensed to Colt during the Vietnam War. The semiautomatic is the darling of the gun industry, a big slice of sales, and hot-wired to consumers wanting something with a combat feel. Some gun rights supporters might say there’s nothing militarized about the product, although Bushmaster and other makers have used military phrasing in marketing their models.
Nevertheless, this is the iPad of the gun world. It comes in different colors, even pink. Buyers can gorge themselves on a buffet of accessories like decals, grips, lasers, sights, and barrels. In one study, AR-15 owners were found to spend an average of $436 just tinkering with their models. One accessory, a drum-type magazine, allowed James Holmes to carry many rounds of ammunition into a darkened movie theater. Luckily, his gun jammed as he fired on the audience.
The civilian version of the AR-15 was originally marketed for vets and enthusiasts but initially disliked by traditional sportsmen. (The cartridge was too small for hunters, who believed a .223 bullet couldn’t take down big game.) Sales likely hit a speed bump in the post-Vietnam backwash that scorned the U.S. military and all its iconic hardware. Of course, the AR and its cousins were still very dangerous if let loose and ultimately scorned in a 1994 assault weapons ban. A letter from presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan—all in support of legislation—discussed the matter:
While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.
The penned presidents mentioned a 1993 poll that found “77% of Americans support a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47.” This was one of those moments of public pressure that even the NRA could not ignore. The organization supported the ’94 ban. However, the law had plenty of loopholes. Not every assault-style weapon was banned. The AR could also be altered to stay free of restrictions and there were other models to choose from. Ten years later, the ban was lifted and everything went back to normal.
At a 2004 trade show, the National Shooting Sports Federation required gun makers to show off ARs as hunting rifles without any tactical labels or references. But if the NSSF was still on the fence, that’s no longer the case. The weapon used by Seal Team Six and Call of Duty gamers is now displayed everywhere with paramilitary flair. . . the sort of combat-commercial world that would hardly surprise William Gibson. More to the point, gun sales always rise whenever someone yells “ban”, yet another harvest for dealers and manufacturers.
Thus the AR-15 remains a paradigm of a paradox. The AR-15 is the scourge of law enforcement … and the top moneymaker for dealers. The AR-15 is a collector’s favorite Christmas gift … and the weapon of choice for murderers. The weapon is legal to buy and own … but still accessible to the desperate and deranged.
For better or worse, the AR-15 represents all the weapons of its deadly class, moving like a slider over our social development, and modified and marketed during an endless debate on public safety and gun control.