The House of Representatives voted along party lines last week to revive long-expired restrictions on certain types of semi-automatic firearms, including the AR-15, with Democrats targeting America’s most polarizing style of gun following a horrific spate of mass shootings.
But don’t expect a new assault weapons ban in the United States anytime soon.
The bill appears doomed to fail in the Senate. Not a single Republican will support the legislation, and it’s not scheduled for a vote before the lawmakers take their month-long recess on August 8. Even with the backing of President Joe Biden, there seems to be no appetite for re-banning what the gun industry calls “modern sporting rifles.”
Biden was a senator in 1993 when Congress passed the first assault weapons ban, and back then he was a key voice in the debate, which occurred months after a gunman opened fire at a San Francisco office building, killing himself and eight others. It was before the era of frequent mass shootings, and there was urgency to act.
“We can vote to keep these deadly military-style assault weapons on the streets, where we know they have one purpose and one purpose only — killing other human beings,” Biden said in November 1993. “Or we can vote to take these deadly military-style assault weapons off our streets. The choice is that simple. The choice is that stark.”
Today, the choice remains much the same, even as the stakes are higher. But assault rifles are now big business. The ban lapsed in 2004, and sales have since skyrocketed. As one House committee revealed Friday, gun manufacturers made more than $1 billion selling AR-15-style rifles in the last decade.
Another stat, this one from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group: There are now nearly 25 million AR-15s, AK-47s, and similar rifles in U.S. civilian hands, with 2.7 million produced or imported in 2020 alone, the most for any year on record.
The AR-15 in particular has become part of the American conservative identity, with politicians wielding the rifle in campaign ads to signal their commitment to the 2nd Amendment, even as successive mass shooters use it to commit massacres: Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park.
Those who love to shoot say the modular design of the AR “platform” offers endless customization, versatility, and reliability. It’s not one specific type of gun—AR-style rifles are built to be interchangeable with various components. This also makes them more difficult to control as anyone with a 3D printer can make key parts of the gun with relative ease.
For gun control advocates, the AR-15 is a weapon of war that has no business being for sale to the general public. There’s not even agreement on what features define an assault rifle, or on whether the 1994-2004 ban was effective at reducing mass shootings and gun violence.
Semi-automatic pistols and other types of rifles can also be used to kill, but since it has returned to shelves the AR-15 has become more than just a gun—it’s a political lightning rod. Even after Uvalde, where an AR-wielding gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, public support for an assault weapons ban is below 50 percent, according to a poll from Quinnipiac University released earlier this month.
The AR has been promoted as “America’s Rifle,” and its iconic silhouette is now instantly recognizable. Earlier this year at a gun store called Firearms Unknown in Yuma, Arizona, manager Dimitri Karras told VICE News the AR has a special place in the hearts of customers.
"It's almost a symbol of America at this point in time,” said Karras, a Marine Corps veteran. “There's not a firearm in existence that's more American than the AR-15."
The AR-15 did not become woven into the fabric of American existence overnight. It took years of marketing, according to David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, which works to reduce gun violence and supports an assault weapons ban.
In the early years, gun companies marketed to hunters and sport shooters, Pucino said, but they pivoted in the 80s to the message that gun ownership is essential for home defense. After the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, with the U.S. embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gun companies started selling consumers on arming themselves with military-grade firepower.
“There was acknowledgment and awareness of the opportunity to exploit all of the images being beamed across America during the Bush administration,” Pucino said. “The message was you can be a man if you buy this gun, this product, this tactical gear. And it worked.”
In recent years, Pucino said, the marketing has become even more sophisticated and targeted. Guns that appear in first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty are available on store shelves. Some products are specifically aimed at kids, like the “JR-15,” a miniaturized .22-caliber AR that "operates just like Mom and Dad's gun." One company sold a tropical-pattern AK-style rifle associated with the anti-government Boogaloo movement.
“They market specifically to Boogaloos and use January 6 imagery,” Pucino said. “They are framing fights with antifa as a marketing strategy, as being the reason you need a gun. They know their audience and they’re tapping into it.”
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Friday on “Examining the Practices and Profits of Gun Manufacturers,” where Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, lambasted industry executives for “marketing to children, preying on young men’s insecurities, and even appealing to violent white supremacists.”
“There's not a firearm in existence that's more American than the AR-15”
One company, Ruger, made over $100 million through the sales of AR-style rifles in 2021, the committee found. When the CEO of Ruger, which manufactures an AR variant that was used to kill 27 people at a Texas church in 2017, argued it was unfair to blame an “inanimate object” for mass shootings, Maloney shot back.
“With all due respect, you market weapons of war to civilians and children,” she said. “You make millions by selling them, but when someone pulls the trigger, you refuse to accept responsibility. I would call that a staggering lack of accountability.”
Ruger’s Christopher Killoy defended his company, saying its marketing of AR-style guns “does not sensationalize the product or its use but rather seeks to educate lawful, responsible citizens of the particular features that set our products apart from others to aid consumers in their decision-making process.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill that prohibits marketing of assault rifles to minors, with the governor’s office condemning the JR-15 in particular for being “adorned with cartoon child skulls with pacifiers.”
There’s also a push for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to intervene and regulate how gunmakers advertise AR-15s and other assault rifles. Gun control advocates filed a complaint in 2020 against Smith & Wesson, arguing “there is a direct link between manufacturer marketing and radicalized young men relying on assault rifles to commit mass shootings.”
Last week, Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced House legislation that would order the FTC to “develop and enforce rules to address unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the marketing of firearms.” The bill also calls for opening an investigation into gun-company marketing practices and fines of nearly $50,000 “for each knowing violation of the rules” on advertising to kids.
“There was a time when the gun industry encouraged responsible use of its products,” Malinowski said. “Now it runs ads encouraging Americans to make war on each other, and to give military-grade rifles to children who are too young to legally buy them.”
Congress did manage to pass one piece of gun legislation this year, a bill that received bipartisan support in part because it does not touch assault weapons. Instead, the law expands background checks for prospective buyers under 21, incentivizes the creation of red-flag laws, and funds mental health resources, in addition to closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that has allowed domestic abusers to keep their guns in some cases.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who led gun package negotiations for the Democrats, acknowledged during an interview with PBS NewsHour earlier this year that with banning assault rifles politically untenable, compromises are the best the Senate can do.
“We probably can’t get the votes for a ban on assault weapons,” Murphy said. “But maybe we can do some smaller things to at least show parents and kids in this country that we take seriously the fear, the anxiousness that they labor under every single day in their classrooms and at home.”
Murphy pushed for an assault weapons ban after the Sandy Hook massacre in his state in 2012, when a gunman armed with an AR-style rifle killed 26 children and teachers. The ban could only muster 40 votes in the Senate, with 15 Democrats breaking ranks in opposition. Of those 15, according to the Washington Post, five remain in office and eight have been replaced by pro-gun Republicans.
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