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'Consumer Product Like No Other,' AR-15 Rises to Cultural Icon

The market for tactical rifles like the AR-15 was still largely untapped in 2005 when the venerable firearms brand Smith & Wesson responded to lagging gun sales, an expired federal ban and a similarly expired patent on Colt's earlier version by developing its own model, the M&P 15 — "M" for military and "P" for police, an echo of the rifle's roots as a strictly battlefield weapon. In less than two decades, this shift to the consumer market has turned AR-15-style rifles into a dominant product in the marketplace and a cultural symbol, the Washington Post reports in an extensive history of the gun. Now the best-selling rifle in the U.S., with roughly 20 million in circulation despite sporadic attempts to ban it and blame its capabilities for mass shootings, the AR-15 has gained a polarizing hold on the American imagination through a sustained and intentional marketing effort. Free from congressional scrutiny, the AR-15 has become a consumer product like no other — a barometer of fear and a gauge of political identity, its market success driven by the divisions it sows. “The protection of the AR-15 has become the number one priority for the gun lobby,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal supporter of stronger gun laws. He added: “It makes it harder to push this issue on the table because the gun lobby does so much messaging around it.”

Supporters of the AR-15 say its popularity reflects its legitimacy as a tool for law-abiding people. “This firearm is lawfully owned by millions of Americans — used in shooting competitions, for recreational purposes, hunting and home protection,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. That wasn't its original intent, as its inventor at Armalite, a small firm in California, thought only of its military potential. Now seen by the gun industry as a cash cow, the weapon has benefited from the "mind-boggling" speed at which attitudes about it changed, recalled Ryan Busse, who wrote about his turn from gun industry executive to critic in his 2021 book “Gunfight.” The AR-15 was suddenly being celebrated after years of being widely viewed with suspicion, Busse said. Gunmakers were no longer avoiding the gun that many had once regarded as the kind of weapon that society would disdain. He recalled the pressure within the industry to either get on board with the AR-15 or keep quiet. After capitalizing on reactions to Barack Obama's presidency and policies, the industry has continued to play off liberals' loathing for what one gun enthusiastic called "the Evil Black Rifle" mindset while enjoying extraordinary profit margins on each sale relative to handguns. But the marketing goes beyond political grievances, to appeal to hunters with the AR-15's rebranding as a "sporting rifle" and to gamers in first-person shooter games. That aggressive, culturally based marketing has made some in the industry queasy and has proved something of a legal Achilles' heel, thanks to the lawsuit brought by parents of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting victims who won their battle against the industry by painting the marketing as a form of deception. But those controversies have only fueled higher sales. Thanks to its growing popularity, it serves as both a deadly threat and a source of protection to America's police, as well as a tool and symbol favored by political extremists.


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