The Rifle That Ruined America

As an NRA-approved icon and the mass shooter’s weapon of choice, the AR-15 has done untold harm.

A fuzzy image of an AR-15 rifle against a red backdrop
The Atlantic

Less than 20 years ago, when I was a rising executive at an up-and-coming gun company, most people in the firearms industry regarded the AR-15 rifle as distasteful and dangerous, and they chose not to promote it at events. Trade shows did not allow the display or advertisement of tactical gear like that worn by the Uvalde and Buffalo shooters, who both used AR-15-type rifles to carry out those atrocities.

Up until about 2006, only a handful of companies were making AR-15s. They were outliers, producing rifles mainly for law enforcement and the military, and in the domestic commercial market AR-15s accounted for just a fraction of total gun sales, which averaged from 6 million to 8 million guns a year. The social norms that governed gun ownership and the firearms industry were clear: Assault rifles and tactical gear were a creepy, fringe interest that had no place in a complex democratic society.

The unwritten rules of decency were enforced by firearm-industry leaders—the executives, publishers, and journalists who functioned like risk managers, warding off threats to the reputation of the whole enterprise. I witnessed how this worked many times, including one occasion when a young writer brought his own AR-15 to a hunting event I was hosting in 2004. The senior figures there responded immediately. “That’s not the kind of thing we want to be promoting,” they said. The newcomer was shamed into locking the gun up for the rest of the event.

The industry’s restraint came from a sense of responsibility and was voluntary. Contrary to common belief, AR-15s have never been completely outlawed. This was true even during the 10-year assault-weapons ban that a Republican-controlled Congress under President Bush allowed to sunset in 2004. Many AR-15s were not covered by that law unless they were fitted with particular features, such as high-capacity magazines, flash suppressors, or folding stocks that pushed them into the “assault weapon” category. Millions of AR-15s might have been sold perfectly legally during the ban, but industry conduct and social stigma inhibited that. The ban both reinforced and reflected this voluntary code.

The few AR-15s manufactured between 1994 and 2004 became known in the industry as “post-ban” rifles. The shooter who killed 10 people in Buffalo used one of those guns, a Bushmaster XM-15 made during that period; all the teenager who bought it had to do to turn it into an even deadlier weapon of war was outfit it with a modern high-capacity magazine.

For much of my career I fought to hold the industry to its own rules of responsibility. When other manufacturers condemned Dick’s Sporting Goods for refusing to sell AR-15s, I insisted that my company maintain a relationship with the national retailer despite pressures to join a boycott. I tried to counter the movement to embrace everything tactical, no matter how dangerous the equipment concerned. But I lost that battle. Today, I am a critic fighting from the outside. The industry now comprises as many as 500 companies making AR-15 variants, along with hundreds of tactical-gear makers. Gone are the old norms; the “tactical lifestyle” now dominates trade shows. We see campaigns for guns like the Urban Super Sniper, and potential buyers can consider their “man card reissued” if they pick a particular AR-15.

At least 20 million guns are sold every year in the U.S., about 4 million of which are AR-15 rifles. By all accounts, at least 20 million AR-15s are now out there, among the more than 400 million guns in circulation. The gun industry is arming civilians with weapons of war in that same complex democracy it once knew to protect. Some companies even market to children, such as Wee1 Tactical, a rifle maker that advertises its miniaturized AR-15s with pink and green cartoon characters. This “JR-15” is not a toy; it’s a real semiautomatic rifle, sized for a kid to use.

The astounding transition from an era of self-restraint to where we are now began in 1999, after the murders at Columbine High School. The National Rifle Association’s convention was scheduled to take place just a few days after that school mass shooting, and only a few miles away, in Denver. Although much of the convention was canceled, the NRA leadership held closed-door business meetings in which they discussed strategy options, as we know from secret recordings of those meetings recently uncovered by National Public Radio. The choice before the NRA, as leaders saw it, was either conciliation and engagement with lawmakers to help draft improved policies or aggressive resistance with the aim of frightening its members into believing lawmakers would come after their guns. The NRA chose to enter the culture-war business, and so did the gun industry.

The Bush administration helped that along by allowing the assault-weapons ban to end in 2004, and, more important, by signing in 2005 the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shielded the gun industry from liability no matter what kind of irresponsible marketing it used to promote firearms. The new law removed any incentive for the gun industry to hold on to its former self-imposed restraint.

Perhaps Bush’s biggest gifts to AR-15 makers, though, were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing normalized the “black rifle” like the evening-news segments featuring U.S. soldiers on combat missions. Later, as returning veterans, they would go on to form a ready-made customer base for civilian versions of the rifle. For many of those ex-service members, owning and shooting the rifle became a way to stay connected to the people they had served with in “the sandbox.”

I watched all of these ingredients—the NRA’s fear, the Bush-era laws, the returning soldiers, and the glorification of war—coalesce into a frightening, self-perpetuating vortex. A handful of others in the industry also quit or lost their jobs for speaking out, but we were too few, too late.

Barack Obama’s win in the 2008 presidential election provided the firearms industry with a culture-war boost, as the NRA took to promoting conspiracy-theory-minded fears. Before Obama took office, U.S. gun consumers had never purchased more than 10 million guns in a single year; by the time he left, they would be buying more than 16 million a year, and at least 2 million of those were AR-15s. The industry came to call Obama “The Greatest Gun Salesman in America.”

Following its post-Columbine strategy, the NRA also learned how to harness the predictable calls for legislation after mass shootings to drive gun buyers into a fearful frenzy. The gun group made maximum use of events like Sandy Hook and the shooting of Gabby Giffords in Tucson. Sales boomed after every shooting, especially sales of AR-15s.

After his 2016 election win, President Donald Trump’s dog-whistling dalliance with racism and conspiracy theory—components of the NRA playbook that I had witnessed for years—accelerated the feedback loop of profit and fear even more, eventually producing sales of nearly 23 million guns in 2020, a 44 percent increase over even the highest totals of the Obama years. The rifle of war, once relegated to the back halls of the shooting industry, was now its star performer.

The NRA helped convert the black rifle into a political symbol, too. Bumper stickers and ball caps bearing its distinctive outline became emblematic of a new brand of identity politics. By 2015, devotion to the gun and what it stood for had become central to extremist groups like the Oath Keepers. Sadly, it came as no surprise for me to see Black Rifle Coffee gear and Come and Take It AR-15 flags everywhere among the January 6 insurrectionists. As the rioters were breaking into the Capitol and threatening lawmakers that day in 2021, I took a call from an old friend, another former gun-industry executive, who remarked, “Well, at least now everyone knows what it’s like to be at an NRA convention.”

So here we are, at the apex of the NRA’s high-pressure culture war, with more than 20 million AR-15s in circulation and a deeply polarized political culture. What are we to do with this mess?

One place to start would be an effort to reestablish the same social norms the industry itself once insisted on. The measures outlined in the policy framework that a bipartisan group of senators is now negotiating would offer some of the marginal improvements that can help with that goal, including funding to support states’ red-flag laws.

But to denormalize AR-15s, we need to go further—by decoupling their regulation from that applied to other, less dangerous firearms. No one under the age of 21 should be able to buy these rifles. This will not be easy to achieve with politicians still at the behest of a gun industry that wants to pretend AR-15s are just like target shotguns or hunting rifles, firearms long ruled appropriate for a minimum purchase age of 18 years (unlike handguns, for which a buyer must be 21). Senate Republicans have refused to consider any move to introduce a higher age limit for purchasing and owning an AR-15. But the GOP and the industry are wrong: These guns are different from most others. If they were not so uniquely deadly, why would they almost invariably be mass shooters’ weapon of choice?

Lastly, we must consider national legislation to rein in the gun industry’s deeply irresponsible marketing of the AR-15-led “tactical lifestyle.” Not so long ago, the U.S. restricted the tobacco industry’s use of misleading advertising to glamorize smoking. We did not ban the freedom to smoke cigarettes, but we did make the situation better, saved some lives, and began to cut the costs of smoking-related disease. Smoking still kills too many Americans, but thanks to action, a century-long growth in the death toll is slowly being reversed. We can make the same improvements for guns without impinging on people’s personal choice and civil liberties.

The legislative proposals now emerging on gun reform may seem tentative, too weak to repair what is broken, but even modest changes in the law can be an important social signal. The first moves to restrict tobacco products started that way: Back in 1987, Congress banned smoking on domestic flights, though only those of less than two hours’ duration; it took decades more for most states to pass comprehensive smoke-free laws. But this is our path to reversing the erosion of norms and restoring the sense of responsibility and decency on which our democracy depends.

No law under consideration will solve everything, but we can work to restore a safer culture of responsible gun ownership. Even the gun industry once believed in that value. I know because I was there.