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Opinion Surging AR-15 sales in Georgia reveal the gun industry’s dark side

AR-15 rifles are displayed on the exhibit floor during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Another weekend in the United States of America has come and gone, and with it the lives of a dozen people killed by guns. A spate of mass shootings through Sunday killed at least 12 and wounded 38, and a number of those slain were teenagers or in their early 20s.

Yet at a gun store in Georgia, AR-15s are flying off the shelves, with customers lining up outside in anticipation of getting their hands on more firepower. To some of those shoppers, the very fact that such shootings appear to be on the rise — and are the focus of the media and politicians — is encouragement to arm up further.

Which is exactly how the gun industry apparently wants it to be.

This Georgia store is of interest because a local TV news crew aired an extraordinary segment over the weekend on its sales. The report captures in a very dark way the degree to which a maximally armed society is the industry’s barely disguised goal, and why some in the industry see fomenting social antagonism and division as key to pushing us further down that perilous path.

Sales of assault-style rifles have tripled since last week at this Adventure Outdoors store in Smyrna, Ga., according to the report. Gun sales overall at the store are up 30 percent, and after President Biden delivered a speech Thursday calling for more gun safety laws, the buying of AR-15s spiked.

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“Folks were waiting at the door to purchase AR-15s,” a store manager says in the report, which was first flagged by Ron Filipkowski, a lawyer who closely tracks the right.

The manager also says customers should consider AR-15s precisely because they are semiautomatic. “If you deal with a mob of people possibly trying to take over your home,” he says, “to protect your family, you’ll want as much firepower as you can get.”

These sentiments appear to resonate with customers. One of them describes the AR-15 as “America’s rifle,” in that it is “what Americans choose to defend their homes with.” Another customer says this:

The way this president is driving this country, everybody needs to be carrying at this point.

Such sentiments appear partly driven by Biden’s proposal to revive the assault weapons ban, which expired nearly 20 years ago. Some customers probably want to stock up on AR-15s in the belief that buying them might soon be illegal.

Indeed, gun sales have historically spiked at such times. They surged after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. They surged in 2012 and again in 2015, both times after mass shootings that led to renewed calls for gun safety laws. So we might be seeing yet another cycle of this.

But something else is also going on here. The gun customer’s claim above that “everybody needs to be carrying,” due to the way Biden is “driving” the country, increasingly could serve as the gun industry’s motto.

Our current moment is in part the result of the gun industry’s radicalization. It has marketed guns in a way designed to target younger demographics and to encourage the militarization of our culture, the increasing introduction of military-style weaponry into civil society.

But another component of the industry’s radicalization, as former gun company executive Ryan Busse argues, is its push toward ever-increasing firepower, toward a kind of fully armed society and the deliberate exploitation of social antagonisms to jet-fuel this trend.

You hear echoes of this in the customer’s suggestion that the AR-15 has become “America’s rifle,” and in the gun store manager urging the purchase of ever more firepower, on the idea that “mobs,” as opposed to lone intruders, will soon invade your home. You see, the threat can always be inflated further.

“There seems to be a particular ratcheting up now,” Busse told me. The goal, he said, is a “maximally armed public.”

Busse points out that the industry sometimes hails increased gun sales not just as a sign of business success, but as a positive societal development, as an indication that people who fear crime are doing right by themselves. At times, he notes, gun manufacturers hype the possibility of racial conflict to induce people to arm up further in preparation for that eventuality.

“They’re smart enough to never quite say, ‘Thank God, society is almost ready to come apart, we’re selling everybody guns!’” Busse told me. “It just gets so dangerously close.”

The industry’s defenders might argue that if sales are spiking, it really is because Democrats want to ban things like AR-15s. But even so, it’s difficult to imagine an assault weapons ban passing this Congress. If anything does pass, it will be much more modest: incremental improvements in background checks, incentives for “red flag” laws, and so forth.

What’s more, whatever role the specter of an assault ban plays in driving sales, it’s obvious that something much darker is at work here. The belief that “everybody needs to be carrying,” not just for self-defense but also because Biden is supposedly pushing the country to a place of full-scale civic breakdown, appears to be precisely what the industry wants to encourage in people.

If that Georgia saga is any indication, this might be having the desired effect. And it’s hard to avoid the sense that these virulent tendencies will get worse — perhaps much worse — before they get better.

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