Made in China: America’s Appetite for Assault Weapons

For a while, gun hobbyists saw military-style weapons as inefficient and too expensive. An influx of foreign knock-offs changed their minds.

Joshua Lott / AP

In May 2000, Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Pete Stark, and Carolyn McCarthy wrote a letter to their House counterparts urging them to deny China a far-reaching and highly-coveted trade status called Permanent Normal Trade Relations. In their warning, the three Democrats didn’t mention the potentially damaging economic or political ramifications of such a relationship with China or even invoke the country’s infamous human-rights record. Instead, they focused on one specific issue: semi-automatic weapons.

From 1987 until 1994, some 42 percent of all rifles imported into the United States had come from China. The representatives noted that an embargo had been imposed in 1994 because, in just a few years, China “had exported almost one million Chinese rifles to the United States—more than made by all U.S. manufacturers combined in 1992.” Conferring this new trade designation, they argued, would effectively unravel the embargo and allow assault rifles like the SKS semi-automatic to become cheaply available again. “What made them attractive was their power and inexpensive price, only $55.95,” they wrote of the SKS, noting its popularity among neo-Nazis, gangs, and white supremacists. The letter concluded, “Don't give China the power to decide gun policy in the United States.” The bill was signed into law that October.

Heated talk about semi-automatic weapons is, relatively speaking, only a somewhat recent development. After being adopted by the army in the 1960s, assault rifles were modified for sale to civilians in the late 1970s, but as late as the mid-’80s, American consumers didn’t express much interest in them. They were pricey and exotic, and to hunters, using a modified army weapon that fired lower caliber bullets than hunting rifles emblemized inefficiency.

Here is how Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY Cortland and the author of several books on gun policy, frames the way Americans went from being uninterested in assault weapons to being passionate about them. “There’s no real market for the guns [in the ‘70s]. They’re not selling very well,” he says. “Part of it is that they’re expensive and people aren’t really acquainted with them.” But China’s relations with the United States began to improve around the same time that American manufacturers were introducing these semi-automatic weapons. “In the mid-to-late 1980s, the Chinese dump a lot of cheap, knock-off assault-style weapons on the American market,” Spitzer explains. “The cost is far less and there begins to be an appetite for these weapons.”

Essentially, what happened is that once the market was flooded with knock-offs, appetite for the real thing increased—a pattern not uncommon when it comes to consumer products. Consider the fashion world: According to one MIT study, counterfeits “are often used as ‘trial versions’ of the high-end genuine branded item, with over 40 percent of counterfeit handbag consumers ultimately purchasing the real brand.” Chinese military-style weapons appear to have served as a similar gateway.

“Gun companies are marketing these guns because they are a big moneymaker,” Spitzer says. “They’re huge in terms of profitability. It’s sort of like buying a big fancy automobile, a big pick-up. The mark-up is bigger so there’s more money to be made if you buy a $45,000 pick-up truck than a $19,000 subcompact car that’s stripped down.” Gun companies diversified their products and assault rifles became highly customizable. The AR-15, for example, has been (curiously) monikered by enthusiasts as “Barbie dolls for men” for their ability to be accessorized.

And then, in the ‘90s, tragedy and politics interceded. California passed a first-in-the-nation ban on semi-automatic weapons following a 1989 shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, during which five children were killed and dozens more were injured. A federal ban on assault weapons followed in 1994 (it expired in 2004) as did an embargo on arms and ammunition from China.

But political action wasn’t the only consequence of that 1989 shooting. “After Patrick Edward Purdy opened fire on a school yard in Stockton, California, with an AK-47, sales of the gun and its knock-offs boomed,” Erik Larson reported in The Atlantic in 1993. “Prices quadrupled, to $1,500.” Similar booms in sales have followed for weapons like the AR-15, variations of which were used in the San Bernardino, Newtown, and Aurora shootings.

Spitzer casts this phenomenon as a gun owners’ statement of solidarity:  “People who go to a gun store to buy a gun because there’s a mass shooting or, this happened after Obama was re-elected, they want to make a political statement,” he says. An extension of this is a fear that access to assault weapons will be restricted by political action in the wake of a mass shooting.

According to Spitzer, the last explanation for the continued popularity of these weapons is the most self-evident and the least frequently dispatched. “A reason you see all the time,” he says, “but virtually nobody mentions when they’re defending the legality of assault weapons after a mass shooting, is that they’re a whole lot of fun to shoot,” which in the end seems like a poor justification for a machine that can so quickly cause so much devastation.