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Opinion How the AR-15 conquered America, as revealed by an industry insider

Colt M4 Carbine and AR-15 style rifles are displayed during an NRA meeting in Texas. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
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As the country continues to absorb the horror of the murder of 19 children in Texas, public attention has refocused on the role that AR-15-style weapons have played in such mass-shooting massacres.

In addition to the Uvalde killer, the young man who allegedly slaughtered 10 people in Buffalo used one. So did Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two protesters in Wisconsin, for which he got acquitted.

But behind all these specific horrors lies an even bigger story. How did AR-15 variants come to occupy such a position of dominance in our culture — and, increasingly, in our everyday lives — in the first place?

The rise of AR-15-style weaponry, which is a semiautomatic civilian version of a military weapon, reflects a growing zeal, at least amid a determined minority in some parts of the country, for the introduction of overtly military-style equipment into civil society.

In that regard, Daniel Defense, the company that manufactured the weapon used in Uvalde, has really pushed the envelope. But this reflects a larger trend of “radicalization” in the industry, argues Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive.

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Busse has carved out a niche arguing from inside knowledge that none of this was an accident. He says it was the result of specific choices made by the industry, combined with cultural shifts that created fertile conditions for this transformation.

The gun violence problem goes far beyond mass shootings and assault-style rifles. Right now senators are negotiating reforms that would hopefully address both mass shootings and day-to-day gun murders and suicides.

Yet those reforms will be modest and incremental at best. And given that there are hundreds of millions of guns in circulation in the United States, it’s extremely sobering to consider how vast and intractable the gun violence problem will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

I talked to Busse about all these matters. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent: Salvador Ramos was reportedly an enthusiast of the “Call of Duty” video game. Can you explain how the gun industry has used video games and other similar tactics to try to boost sales of guns like AR-15-style rifles?

Ryan Busse: Twenty years ago, everybody believed the industry was dying. Every marketing person in the industry looked around with some worry about how to reach new market shares.

Probably in the mid-to-late 2000s, you start to see the rise of first-person shooter games, following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

There was lots of discussion in marketing-planning meetings about how you could get your gun model placed in a movie or a video game. That represented a solution to the problem, which was: How do we attract a new market segment away from this graying, older market segment that’s not growing?

There was a young demographic associated with first-person video games and action movies.

Sargent: It’s interesting that you mention the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as galvanizing this new groundswell of interest in this type of weaponry. How important were the wars — the imagery of the wars coming home, the war on terror, and the Islamophobia coursing through all of this — to this cultural groundswell?

Busse: Very important. I think it seeded everything.

Prior to about 2010 or 2012 there was never a gun sold in the United States commercial market that was desert tan color. Now a significant percentage of guns are sold in desert tan color. Why? Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sargent: The company that manufactured the shooter’s weapon, Daniel Defense, is at the leading edge of this kind of aggressive marketing. How widespread is what they do in the overall industry?

Busse: The story of Daniel Defense bursting on to the market is a case study in how the gun industry has radicalized and changed. All of the AR-15s built are pretty much the same gun. About 500 companies now build them. Twenty years ago there were one or two, and they were on the fringe of the commercial market.

About 1999, in the Columbine shooting, the NRA set its political course: We’re in the culture war business.

Then you have wars happening, AR-15s, patriotism, Islamophobia — all of that happening in the culture at the same time.

The gun industry became like a badly gerrymandered congressional district. It only had incentive to go one way. Everything pulls it to the right.

Sargent: What’s intriguing to me is the intense symbolic importance these AR-15-type guns have taken on. Throughout blue America the feeling has intensified that assault-style weapons have no place in civil society.

Yet in pro-gun America that very fact — that it arouses such intense opposition — has itself become almost a point of prideful defiance.

Busse: It’s a middle finger.

Sargent: For the right, living in a society that refrains from acting collectively to limit easy accessibility of such firepower has taken on a kind of higher meaning.

Busse: I live in red America. If I drive through the streets where I am, almost all the vehicles that have the Trump message somewhere on them also have some kind of AR-15 sticker on the back.

The people who marched into the Michigan Capitol had AR-15s. On Jan. 6, there were the Trump political flags — and then there were come-and-take-it AR-15 flags.

Sargent: This weapon has become a kind of symbolic test indicating the type of society we want. What this middle finger says is, “You can take your civil society and shove it.”

Busse: Nothing conveys dominance and intimidation like a loaded AR-15. It was designed to be offensive in war. It was designed to take people’s lives.

Sargent: You’re positioning the cultural mania around the AR-15 as an aberration or a malignancy, relative to what surely are millions upon millions of gun owners who have a much healthier attitude toward their hobby.

Busse: It’s how people are using the rifle. It’s what the rifle has become.

I think the authoritarian forces in this country view the AR-15 as a central organizing symbol.

Sargent: You often see advocacy for the AR-15 from the same right wing influencers — Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), etc. — who regularly traffic in versions of the “great replacement theory” or relentlessly fearmonger about leftist terrorism driving the country into civil collapse.

Why is it that those who traffic in apocalyptic fantasies about demographic doom also tend to treat the AR-15 as something with almost mythical symbolic importance?

Busse: The idea of civil war/race war with heavily-armed citizen-patriots as your warriors is hardly under the surface anymore.

I won’t go so far as to say they actually want people to die in a race war. It’s a political tool for them. They think they can use it to motivate — and make people angry and fearful and hateful.

Sargent: Let’s talk about the assault weapons ban of 1994, which lapsed in 2004. What fundamentally changed after the ban lapsed?

Busse: The social stigma of AR-15s was removed. Then, 13 months after, George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. It essentially says no firearms company or retailer can be sued for the unlawful actions of a consumer using the product, even if they market it irresponsibly.

Now the Daniel Defenses of the world stand back and basically say: “We’ve got 500 competitors, so we need to be really edgy in marketing. They just passed this law where we’re not even held to account if we market in ways that seem egregious.” Then the course was set.

Sargent: Gun manufacturers could market this stuff directly to a whole generation of people who were living in a society transformed by the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Busse: Then, as it got ever more competitive, they’d get the guns into video games. Get the guns into movies. Call the guns ever-more-offensive names. There’s an AR-15 called the “Urban Super Sniper.” How much more suggestive can you get than that?

Sargent: What does an actual policy response commensurate with the problem look like? Are we doomed to being a heavily armed society for the foreseeable future?

Busse: Rittenhouse, Buffalo, Uvalde — these things are warnings of what’s to come. You can’t put 450 million guns in a complex society — with lots of mental illness and covid-19 shutdowns and angst and Donald Trump and insurrections — and not think you’re going to have this.

I don’t believe there’s a way to solve the crisis. We have to start making decisions that make it marginally better instead of marginally worse.

That kid in Uvalde — if we’d had a 21-year-old buying requirement for rifles in Texas, might the kid have gotten a rifle? He could have. But it would have been harder.

Why don’t we have policies that make that more difficult, instead of continuing to make it easier?

We still have cigarettes. We still have lung cancer. We still have chain-smoking. But we have less now. We made decisions to make things marginally better. We could do that with guns.

Sargent: It sounds like our best hope is to incrementally mitigate a situation that appears to be headed for absolute catastrophe.

Busse: Yes. And I think we are headed for absolute catastrophe.

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