Rise of the AR-15: How the rifle became a top pick for gun owners, source of fear for others

Gun Rights

When a gunman entered a west Omaha Super Target in late January, he carried 13 loaded rifle magazines and a weapon that has gained symbolic stature in the national debate over guns, the AR-15.

Initially created for war, the AR-15’s popularity among firearm owners has skyrocketed in the past two decades, thanks largely to marketing by the gun industry, the sleek American aesthetics of the weapon and other factors that have contributed to an overall jump in firearm ownership.

Nearly 19 million AR-style rifles have been produced in the U.S. since 1990, according to one industry group. The NRA has touted the AR-15 as “America’s Rifle.”

But its use in more than half of the deadliest mass shootings of the past decade – from Uvalde, Texas, to Parkland, Florida – has made it a source of fear and outrage from many Americans, even as a majority of gun deaths involve handguns. Earlier this month, a gunman armed with an AR-15-style rifle killed five people at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Only one person died in the January 31 incident at the Omaha Target, the gunman, Joseph Jones. The 32-year-old suburban Omaha man fired multiple rounds from an AR-15-style rifle inside Target but did not hit any of the estimated 250 people in the store that day, according to the Omaha Police Department.

Eight minutes after Jones fired his first shot, a responding Omaha police officer shot him dead.

For Nebraska gun owners like Patricia Harrold, the Target shooting illustrated the importance of firearm ownership. Many gun owners “see themselves now as the first responder because society is changing,” said Harrold, president of the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association and an AR-15 owner. Law enforcement made initial contact with Jones six minutes after the first 911 call came in. “That is a long time to wait,” Harrold said.

Melody Vaccaro sees the speed that law enforcement responded with as a clear indication that the police view the AR-15 as a dangerous weapon. Omaha police previously said the officer who fired the fatal shot had a 15-second encounter with Jones, during which he made multiple commands to drop the weapon, before killing him.

“We are living in two realities,” said Vaccaro, executive director of Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, a gun violence prevention advocacy group.

Made for the Battlefield

 

Before becoming a top selling firearm for civilians, the AR-15 was created to give America’s military an advantage. Designed in the 1950s by Eugene Stoner of ArmaLite Inc. and licensed to the Colt company, the rifle  was an alternative to heavier battlefield rifles at the time. The ArmaLite is where the “AR” in AR-15 comes from.

The U.S. Air Force adopted the weapon in 1962, the Department of Defense designated it the M-16 and it was viewed as the standard U.S. military rifle by the late 1960s.

Colt marketed a semi-automatic version – meaning each pull of the trigger fires one bullet and automatically reloads another one – of the weapon to civilians and law enforcement as the AR-15. In the 1970s as patents expired, other companies did as well, making their own versions of the rifle.

By the Numbers

Today, AR-style rifles are among the most manufactured firearms. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearm industry, estimates that more than 18.9 million AR-style rifles were produced in the U.S. between 1990 and 2020.

Timothy D. Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University whose research focuses on gun violence, noted that perceptions of the AR-15 seemed to change starting in the 1990s. For years, firearm advertising focused on traditional hunting rifles.

“Before that time, I think it was considered by many firearms owners to be more of an exotic weapon. Most people basically either had a handgun for self-defense or a long gun for sporting purposes,” Lytton told the Flatwater Free Press. “If you look at an NRA magazine from the 1990s, you see a picture of a person in red plaid with a hunting rifle or someone at a range with a pistol.”

The gun industry had a problem: It manufactured a product that, unlike cars or dishwashers, didn’t wear out if properly maintained. A well-maintained firearm can last the lifetime of an owner.

That’s a good thing for the consumer, Lytton said, but a tough spot for a gun manufacturer.

“There is a need to either develop new markets and find ways to get people who are not current firearm owners to purchase them,” Lytton said. “Or … get current firearms owners to buy new types of weapons.”

Manufacturers emphasized the tactical nature of the weapon in ads, giving people the thrill of combat without ever actually going to war. A popular phrase in the advertising:  “Consider your man card reissued.”

“It’s sort of part of the general marketing strategy. I think many people who sell products are looking to sell, not just a product, but an experience,” said Lytton.

That experience seemingly became more in demand beginning in 2002 – two years before the expiration of a federal ban blocking the manufacturing of some semi-automatic rifles – when production started steadily picking up. Since 2003, at least 107,000 AR-style rifles have been produced each year, according to the trade association’s estimates. Production jumped again in 2009 to 692,000.

Then came 2020, a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and a summer of racial unrest following the murder of George Floyd by police. Production of AR-style rifles that year reached nearly 2.5 million – the highest estimated total in 30 years.

“The firearm industry responds to market demand and this shows that during the elevated period of firearm sales that began in 2020, this particular style of rifle is the top choice for law-abiding citizens for hunting, recreational shooting and self-defense,” said Joe Bartozzi, the trade association’s president and CEO, in a press release.

More Americans became gun owners in 2020 for the first time, according to a survey conducted as part of a research study at Northeastern University and Harvard Injury Control Research Center. The survey estimated 2.9% of U.S. adults became new gun owners between Jan. 1, 2019, and April 26, 2021. Approximately half of all new gun owners were female, 20% were Black and 20% were Hispanic, according to the study.

Beyond surveys, specific data on sales and ownership are hard to come by. That’s because a federal law bans the bulk collection and compiling of gun sale data by the federal government.

Individual states can collect sales data but only 11 do, according to the gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Nebraska is not one of those 11.

Nebraska’s population shares many of the same dominant demographic characteristics of AR-15 owners based on a poll conducted by the Washington Post and Ipsos. That poll, which surveyed 400 AR-15 owners, found that they are significantly more likely to be white, male, Republican and between the ages 40 and 65 when compared with Americans as a whole. AR-15 owners also are more likely to have higher incomes and a background of military service and live in states won by Donald Trump in 2020, the Post reported.

Nebraska’s population is nearly 88% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

Census data estimates that veterans account for nearly 6% of Nebraska’s overall population.

Appeal vs. Fear

A major part of the appeal of the AR-15 is that it can be purchased in various sizes and be modified for the owner’s particular needs, said Harrold, the gun rights advocate. Women are a big market. Traditional hunting rifles tend to be long-barreled and very heavy, which she said can be intimidating.

“What I particularly like about the AR is that I can have a much more compact frame, which allows me to operate it far more safely, far more confidently,” she said.

The various rails on the AR-15 allow accessories to be attached to it. A flash suppressor. Flashlights. Other accessories that manage the weight and the recoil.

“There’s all these accessories that seem to grab people’s attention, that make the firearm appear to someone who is unfamiliar with it as, quote-unquote, a weapon of war, when none of us would take it to war,” Harrold said. “None of us would configure it that way for war. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Harrold said she uses the AR-15 for hunting – she has coyotes on her property and the AR-15 is easier to use than a traditional hunting rifle. In the American South it is used to hunt wild boars. Many say they use it for home defense.

“ARs are not unwieldy. (They) tuck into your shoulder. They stick out a foot and a half,” she said. “It’s a very close-quarter-capable frame.”

But for many non-gun-owning Americans, their familiarity with the AR-15 is directly linked to mass slayings.

An analysis by the Washington Post found that 10 of the 17 deadliest U.S. mass shootings since 2012 have involved AR-15s.

That includes the 2017 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that killed 60 people, making it the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. Others identified in the Post analysis include the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary (27 dead); the 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (25 dead); the Uvalde school shooting in 2022 (21 dead); and the 2018 Parkland school shooting in Florida (17 dead). Those five are among the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, according to the online news outlet Axios.

In Nebraska, the deadliest mass shooting on record involved a different style of semi-automatic rifle: the AK-47. Robert Hawkins used an AK-47-style rifle to kill eight people at the Westroads Von Maur in Omaha on Dec. 5, 2007.

Despite their use in mass shootings, neither AR-style rifles nor AK-47s are used in a majority of homicides involving guns, according to data compiled by the FBI. Those figures, based on information voluntarily submitted by law enforcement, show that handguns were used in nearly two-thirds of homicides involving a firearm in 2019. By comparison, rifles were used in less than 4% of those homicides.

AR-style rifles still can cast an intimidating presence.

In 2020, an estimated 400 protestors flooded the Nebraska Capitol to oppose a pair of gun control proposals. Some of them openly carried guns down the Capitol’s limestone hallways and crowded into meeting rooms. In one case, a young man carried an AR-15 and wore an Army helmet, vest and a Hawain patterned T-shirt associated with a far-right anti-government movement. Carrying a concealed weapon is prohibited at the Nebraska Capitol. There is no such prohibition on openly carrying a firearm.

“It was terrifying,” said Vaccaro, who was there representing Nebraskans Against Gun Violence. “It was really scary to see multiple people, with loaded assault weapons, that could literally kill you in a moment before you could even think about running. Because we had to be that close to each other.”

Vaccaro wasn’t the only one with those views at the time. In remarks to her colleagues, State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said she was traumatized by the events at the Capitol that day.

“It was clearly the intent to intimidate this body. I won’t assume to speak for others in this Legislature, but for myself, I was intimidated. I was scared. I was worried about how someone might react to my bill and what I had to say might trigger a dangerous reaction,” she said, before taking issue with the characterization of the AR-15 as a weapon primarily used for self defense.

“I cannot recall a single news story referencing an AR-15 being used for anything beyond mass shootings. I cannot find a single news story about it being used for self-defense,” she said.

In response, Sen. Tom Brewer, a veteran who has advocated for eliminating some firearm regulations in Nebraska, acknowledged “some people are afraid of guns” and said he didn’t believe there was a need for anyone to bring a gun into the Capitol.

“But it is their right to do that. Now, if you want to write rules and prohibit that, have at it, but understand that that 400 can turn into 800 pretty quick because this is an issue people will stand their ground on,” he said. “They know that once they lose their Second Amendment, they lose their First Amendment.”

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