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How to sell an AR-15

Liberal tears, libel suits and loudmouth ruffians: inside the lucrative business of marketing fear

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PHOTO BY XANDER PETERS
  • Photo by Xander Peters

Tom Gabor, a Palm Beach County-based criminologist and the author of Confronting Gun Violence in America, says that's not the case, even if some have been led to believe otherwise.

"The United States, we have the highest civilian gun ownership in the world. We should be the safest advanced country [by that rationale], and we have the greatest gun violence problem," Gabor says. "So if we believe the argument that guns are protective, more guns would mean less crimes, right?"

Gabor continues: "What we see is that the states with the highest levels of gun ownership and the weakest gun laws" – such as Florida – "have the highest gun mortality."

But in America, that's what it takes – fear, anxiety, emotion, all in the name of floating the gun industry's bank balance, even if the facts say otherwise. That's how you sell an AR-15.

Much as the moniker of "America's Team" is reserved by many for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, in a blog post on the National Rifle Association's website, the powerful organization proudly calls the AR-15 "America's most popular rifle."

It's not like that blanket statement isn't backed by numbers: According to estimates provided by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, between 5 million and 10 million AR-15 rifles are currently owned in the U.S., just a small piece of the gun-owning pie. More than 310 million firearms are legally owned nationwide – nearly one for every American – and that's not even accounting for the sprawling black market.

But the AR-15 has always been a tool designed specifically for war. In its purest form, as its history demonstrates, it's a legitimate killing machine.

In The Gun, a biography of the assault rifle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist C.J. Chivers writes that the AR-15's roots trace back to the arms buildup of the Cold War. The Soviets developed the Kalashnikov rifle in the late 1940s, now known as the fully automatic AK-47. By the time the Vietnam War began, the AK-47 had found its way into the hands of the American military's enemies in North Vietnam.

So in the early 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ordered the Pentagon to design a gun to match the AK-47's lethality, and thus was born the Armalite AR-15 rifle. (After some modifications, the military dubbed it the M16.) A 1962 report from the Defense Documentation Center for Scientific and Technical Research (now the Defense Technical Information Center) describes the weapon's destructive capability: "At a distance of approximately [50 feet], one [Army Ranger] fired an AR-15 fully automatic hitting one [Viet Cong] with three rounds with the first burst. One round in the head, took it completely off. Another in the right arm, took it completely off, too. One round hit him in the right side, causing a hole about five inches in diameter."

Today, as a half-century ago, the AR-15 still uses a .223-caliber bullet. However, instead of being a fully automatic weapon (basically, a machine gun), the rifle is now designed for civilian use as a semiautomatic (meaning one pull of the trigger releases one round). In its simplest definition, an assault rifle is defined by Merriam-Webster as "any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire."

Perhaps connected to the rise in violent crime and the crack epidemic, civilian ownership of the AR-15 increased through the 1980s. Hunting was declining in popularity, and the NRA saw a chance to harvest new demographics. Its marketing ploy was fear.

As gun writer Massab Ayoob explains in a 1993 article in Shooting Industry magazine: "Customers come to you every day out of fear. Fear of what they read in the newspaper. Fear of what they watch on the 11 o'clock news. Fear of the terrible acts of violence they see on the street. Your job, in no uncertain terms, is to sell them confidence in the form of steel and lead."

According to research from the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun control, "The National Rifle Association helped stoke sales with a series of sensational fear-mongering ads aimed at taking gun owners' rights down to gut level. The ads used garish photos, inflammatory copy and hyped headlines to push for the use of firearms for self-defense. Typical captions included: 'Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?' and 'If you're attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership or members of the NRA?'"

In 1994, due in part to the increasing use of assault weapons in inner-city street violence and a 1989 elementary school shooting in Stockton, California, that left five students dead and more than 30 others injured, Congress narrowly passed a federal assault weapons ban on a 52-48 vote in the Senate. As a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the ban was set to last for 10 years, but only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban's enactment. The law effectively made it illegal for firearm manufacturers to produce 18 specific models of assault weapons, including AR-15s and AR-70s, as well as any firearms that contained certain military-style amenities – like a flash suppressor, a bayonet mount or a grenade launcher.

But in 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress let the ban expire in accordance with its sunset provision. That year, about 107,000 AR-style rifles were manufactured. In 2015, that number ballooned to about 1.2 million.

When questioned, Cope is quick to admit that the company has seen a dip in sales since Trump took office. He's not alone: With the new administration firmly in its pocket, the gun industry could no longer gin up dire warnings that Barack Obama was coming for your guns.

"We've taken a hit, just like every other gun manufacturer since the election," he says. "It's a double-edged sword, you know? Like, we want this particular political ideology to have control, but as a company that means we're going to do way less business."

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