The AR-15 wasn’t supposed to be a bestseller.
The rugged, powerful weapon was originally designed as a soldiers’ rifle in the late 1950s. “An outstanding weapon with phenomenal lethality,” an internal Pentagon report raved. It soon became standard issue for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, where the weapon earned a new name: the M16.
But few gunmakers saw a semiautomatic version of the rifle — with its shrouded barrel, pistol grip and jutting ammunition magazine — as a product for ordinary people. It didn’t seem suited for hunting. It seemed like overkill for home defense. Gun executives doubted many buyers would want to spend their money on one.
The industry’s biggest trade shows banished the AR-15 to the back. The National Rifle Association and other industry allies were focused on promoting traditional rifles and handguns. Most gun owners also shunned the AR-15, dismissing it as a “black rifle” that broke from the typical wood-stocked long guns that were popular at the time.
“We’d have NRA members walk by our booth and give us the finger,” said Randy Luth, the founder of gunmaker DPMS, one of the earliest companies to market AR-15s.
Today, the AR-15 is the best-selling rifle in the United States, industry figures indicate. About 1 in 20 U.S. adults — or roughly 16 million people — own at least one AR-15, according to polling data from The Washington Post and Ipsos.
Almost every major gunmaker now produces its own version of the weapon. The modern AR-15 dominates the walls and websites of gun dealers.
The AR-15 has gained a polarizing hold on the American imagination. Its unmistakable silhouette is used as a political statement emblazoned on T-shirts and banners and, among a handful of conservative members of Congress, on silver lapel pins. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama, introduced a bill in February to declare the AR-15 the “National Gun of America.”
It also has become a stark symbol of the nation’s gun violence epidemic. Ten of the 17 deadliest U.S. mass shootings since 2012 have involved AR-15s. [Continue reading…]