Why The AR-15 Is More Than Just A Gun For some, it's a symbol of America's might. For others, it's a frightening weapon of warfare. For many target-shooting hobbyists, it's "the Mr. Potato Head of firearms" — customizable to fit each individual. And it's all part of what is now a nearly billion-dollar business in military-style weapons.

Why The AR-15 Is More Than Just A Gun

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Supporters of gun control have suffered some political defeats in Washington, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid insists new gun control legislation might still be in sight. He is working with Vice President Joe Biden on a plan to bring the issue back to the Senate floor. Now, even if it does return, one proposal that's unlikely to survive is an assault weapons ban. Military-style assault rifles now form a nearly one billion dollar industry in the United States, supported by gun owners who are willing to spend thousands of dollars collecting these specialized weapons. NPR's Ailsa Chang wanted to learn more about the appeal.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There's a lot of name-calling in the gun control debate. Gun control advocates are the elitist, urban liberals who want to take everyone's guns away. Gun rights people are the paranoid rednecks who think the government's out to get them. And then there are the special labels reserved for people who love their assault rifles.

MIKE COLLINS: You know, they picture you as some kind of militant freak. And that's not me.

CHANG: Mike Collins says he and his wife own more than a dozen military-style rifles. But before anything else, he wants you to understand something: He is a rational, intelligent, regular guy.

COLLINS: I spent 27 years in the military. I defended this country all over the world. I've been in multiple combat tours. I'm not a nut. I'm not a crazy guy. I'm just a normal person who enjoys shooting.

CHANG: And for Collins, target-practicing with an AR-15 is a hobby.


CHANG: We're at the shooting range at Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Warrenton, Virginia. Next to him is Jason Glascock, who brought me out here because he thinks if more Americans knew what it was like to shoot these weapons...


CHANG: ...they'd see these guns can actually be good, clean fun.


JASON GLASCOCK: And this trigger finger you want to have up. Move your grip up a little bit. There you go. And then - so, go ahead and take a shooting position.

CHANG: I'm holding an AR-15 for my first time. The fully automatic version of this gun, the M-16, was introduced by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The AR-15 is semiautomatic, which means you need to squeeze the trigger for each bullet.


CHANG: I'm getting the hang of it.


GLASCOCK: You got this.


GLASCOCK: Look at you.

CHANG: When Glascock explains why he keeps collecting military-style guns, he doesn't bring up self-defense or hunting. His eyes light up when he talks about all the fun ways you can customized an AR-15: flashlights, night vision, even an attachable beer bottle opener. You can get the gun in neon green or with zebra stripes if you wanted. The accessories can cost more than the weapon itself, which starts at about $800. Mike Collins agrees. When he modifies his AR-15, it's like a guy souping up his car.

COLLINS: This is the man's Barbie doll - you know, the Mr. Potato Head of firearms, 'cause you can interchange so many different things to make it customized to you, to be able to make it comfortable when you shoot.

CHANG: But this Mr. Potato Head is deadly. The AR-15 was the gun used by Adam Lanza who opened fire in Newtown, Connecticut last December. Twenty-six people were killed, 20 of them first-graders. Everyone was shot more than once - as many as 11 times. And that's what the military wanted out of this gun - the ability to kill, even without good aim, a weapon with high-capacity ammunition magazines that could spray bullets within close to medium range. Tom Diaz is a gun control advocate who's long followed the commercialization of military firearms.

TOM DIAZ: Those design features, in a civilian market, have horrific consequences. So, you can call it whatever you want - tactical rifle, black rifle, assault rifle, modern sporting rifle. It has the capability that the military wanted for warfare.

CHANG: How did warfare enter the civilian market? AR-15 rifles were sold to the public as early as the 1960s, but Diaz says their popularity really took off in the 1980s, after Chinese manufacturers began exporting the AR's Russian counterpart - the AK-47 - to the U.S. And then pop culture helped the market along. Television shows like "Miami Vice" made military-style firearms look sexy.


CHANG: Military-style rifles have now ballooned into a billion-dollar business. The main gun industry group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, tells NPR these weapons represent about 20 percent of the entire industry's revenue. Imports and production of these weapons almost quadrupled in the last 10 years. When you watch advertisements for these guns, you'll notice a central message: Get in touch with your inner G.I. Joe. Take this commercial from Sig Sauer, which features soldiers in combat boots crouching next to military Humvees.


MIKE BAZINET: AR-style modern sporting rifles are a major contributor to the success of the American firearms industry, no question.

CHANG: That's Mike Bazinet of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He says despite commercials like the one you just heard, the gun industry is not driving the market for military-style weapons. It's the consumers who want them. But gun control advocates aren't buying that. Diaz says the industry is filling a demand it was forced to create. National survey data show the percentage of American households that own guns is declining. He says kids these days would rather pick up a video game than a hunting rifle.

BAZINET: It's just a fact, that hunting has been in serious decline, so those kinds of guns just don't sell as well. Well, you're in business, you got to sell something. These assault rifles - these military-style rifles - appeal to a broader range of people.

CHANG: So, he says the industry pounced on these products to stay relevant. With fewer households to sell to, Diaz says gun makers have to keep coming up with newer, sleeker, more high-tech weapons for people who already own guns. Now, more than 30 gun companies make AR-15s. About eight and a half million assault rifles have been either manufactured in the U.S. or imported here since the 1990s. Gun dealers like Clark Brothers Gun Shop say someone comes in to buy one of these rifles almost every single day they're open.

MITCH MAY: You can put light or laser or forward grip on there. You can change the shocks on them, the triggers, you know, the sights, whatever you want to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK. All right, I'll take it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: How's that for a sale?

CHANG: Mitch May has been the general manager at Clark Brothers since 1962.

MAY: Well, we've got guys that come here on their 18th birthday and buy the AR-15 - the first gun they ever bought. Just because it's a gun that the military uses, and they want to have one just like it, but they don't want to join the Army to get it.

CHANG: After the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, May says he couldn't keep the AR-15 in stock. Between December and February, he estimates he probably could have sold 40 AR-15s every week. Even if most people think a federal assault-weapons ban has slim hopes of passing any time soon, the mere threat of a ban always brings in great business. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.


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