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Opinion A gun industry insider’s powerful testimony is cause for despair

AR-15-style rifles displayed at a guns and ammunition store in Burbank, Calif., on June 23. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

At a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday, Ryan Busse, a former gun industry insider who regularly speaks out about the decisions and tactics that flooded the United States with military-style rifles, put up a photo of a banner from a recent gun show.

It depicted a Revolutionary War soldier firing an AR-15. The caption read, “Gear for your daily gunfight.”

It is this kind of marketing that turned the AR-15 into an enormous cash cow for the firearms industry. As a new report from the committee demonstrates, this weaponry is generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, with marketing tactics aimed at young men anxious about their masculinity.

Busse’s testimony and the information the committee gathered showed just how committed the gun industry — and the Republican Party — have become to putting military-style weapons into civilian hands, no matter how many lives it costs. But they also showed that undoing what has been done, or even stopping it from getting worse, will be next to impossible.

Right now, a bill to outlaw new sales of military-style weapons is moving through the House; the Judiciary Committee approved it on a party-line vote last week. President Biden has endorsed a ban.

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But in highlighting the ubiquity of these deadly weapons, the Oversight Committee’s report and the testimony highlighted the very factor gun advocates, including those on the Supreme Court, will use to insulate these guns from regulation.

As Busse testified, the industry markets AR-15s by telling people they can “use what the Special Forces guys use,” and by getting guns featured in movies and in first-person-shooter video games. Busse said: “The industry condones frightening marketing that openly partners with domestic terror [organizations] like the Boogaloo Bois, a group that hopes for race wars and wears Hawaiian shirts."

And the committee’s report does show how one company sells an AR-15 adorned in a Hawaiian shirt pattern, called the “Big Igloo Aloha” rifle. “Big Igloo” is a social media variation of “Boogaloo.”

All this adds up to an industry that quite consciously markets its products not as a way to responsibly defend your home, but as an instrument of murder and mayhem.

Given that the idea of an assault weapons ban is quite popular, one might think it would have a chance of being enacted, especially considering the seemingly endless number of mass shootings involving AR-15-style weapons. But even if it could pass Congress — a difficult proposition at best given lockstep Republican opposition — the industry and its GOP allies have an insurance policy.

To people throughout most of the world, the idea that, in the United States, almost anyone can walk into a store and walk out with a military-style rifle is insane. But gun advocates have created facts on the ground ensuring that this reality cannot be undone.

First, consider the politics. As Busse noted, it was only after the assault weapons ban included in the 1994 crime bill expired in 2004 that gun manufacturers realized the riches that awaited them if they got into the AR-15 business. While before only a few companies produced these guns, today, around 500 such companies do. By some estimates as many as 24 million AR-15-type weapons are now in circulation.

Which means a ban on new manufacturing and sales would have a limited effect — and you can forget about confiscating ones people already own. The industry used its marketing and sales acumen to create an AR-15 constituency where one hadn’t existed before.

And the very madness of a society in which these weapons are so common is now being used as a legal justification for why they must stay common.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case that created an individual right to own guns in D.C., Justice Antonin Scalia homed in on a single line from a 1939 case about Revolution-era militia members having weapons “in common use at the time.” Scalia elevated this to a standard for use in the future to judge whether a particular weapon must be protected, even though military-style weapons were not at issue in that particular case.

Nor were they at issue in the recent decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen that struck down laws restricting people carrying guns outside the home. But Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion mentioned the phrase “common use” five separate times.

This is how the facts on the ground now work. The gun industry has made the AR-15 “common.” Therefore, no matter how many children are slaughtered with it, that means it must enjoy constitutional protection.

One hears this argument often within the gun world. You see it during an exchange during a Judiciary Committee debate over the assault weapons ban. “Would anyone on the other side dispute that this bill would ban weapons that are in common use in the United States today?” asked Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). “That’s the point of the bill,” answered the chair, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “The problem is they’re in common use.”

To gun advocates, that’s case closed: AR-15s are common, so they can’t be banned. While the Supreme Court’s conservatives have yet to apply this interpretation of the Second Amendment to AR-15s specifically, the gun industry and its allies clearly think that’s where the justices will come down.

So the more AR-15s are sold, the harder it will be politically to ban them, and perhaps legally as well. The result will be an increasing cycle of violence and intimidation.

“No one from the industry is going to stop it,” Busse testified. “And it’s going to get much worse.”