The AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is one of the most popular guns in the U.S., and one of the most reviled.
It is an emblem of America’s political divisions, beloved by firearm enthusiasts for its versatility and cachet and targeted for bans by gun control advocates who blame it for a rise in mass shootings.
Every time there is a massacre involving an AR-15-style weapon — such as the May 6 shopping mall shooting in Allen, Texas, that killed eight people — the gun draws a new flood of media coverage and public discussion. The stakes, and rhetoric, escalate — and sales, according to the gun industry, remain brisk.
With the frequency of mass shootings increasing, so have calls to restrict sales of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, a design originally created for the military that is now copied by a variety of manufacturers under different names. Washington state and Illinois passed bans this year, joining seven other states and Washington, D.C., that prohibit semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. President Joe Biden says he wants to reinstate a nationwide ban that expired in 2004.
“It is a weapon of war that is really only suitable for soldiers in a combat zone,” said Lindsay Nichols, policy director for the Giffords Law Center, which pushes for gun regulations. “Its ability to kill a lot of people quickly is the reason why we want it banned.”
Compared to handguns, AR-15s inflict much more damage to human tissue because of the faster speed at which the rifles fire bullets. Those projectiles are also more likely to break apart as they pass through the body, inflicting more damage. That makes victims more likely to have more serious injuries and more blood loss and more likely to die than with guns that fire with lower velocities.
AR-15s are popular in part because they are relatively easy to use. They have comparatively little recoil and can be customized with accessories, such as optics, scopes and pistol grips that improve comfort and accuracy.
Gun-rights advocates say bans are an infringement on their constitutional right, upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court, to keep and bear arms and won’t do much to curb gun violence. They point out that data shows semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 represent a minority of the weapons used in murders, including mass shootings, with handguns used more often.
“It’s a wedge for banning as many firearms as possible,” said Dave Kopel, a gun-rights advocate and research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver. “The people who are behind this are perfectly aware that this isn’t about banning a few types of unusual guns. It’s about guns in general.”
The issue has split the nation.
“It’s very emotional and polarizing,” said Jacquelyn Clark, a co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in Lakewood, Colorado.
Clark doesn’t just sell AR-15s; her business also offers classes on how to use the weapons for target competitions and home defense, and how to customize them with accessories that will optimize their performance.
She also owns many hats and T-shirts bearing the image of an AR-15, a gun that she acknowledges can look “mean and nasty.” That is why, when she drops off her children at school, she is careful not to wear them. “I don’t want someone to yell at me in the parking lot,” Clark said.
Clark is deeply troubled by mass shootings and says she isn’t sure of a solution. But banning the AR-15 isn’t the answer, she said.
“When it is used in mass killing situations, it’s easy to say that is the cause, let’s go after that and it will stop. I just don’t think that’s the case,” Clark said. “It’s a very difficult and horrible problem we have, and I don’t think we can go after any one thing. If we make it illegal, the bad guys will still get them and the good guys won’t be able to, and they will have fewer choices to defend themselves.”
The effects of bans on mass shootings are difficult to determine. Researchers have found that the number of victims decreased when a nationwide ban on certain kinds of semi-automatic guns, including AR-15s, was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Researchers also say the number of mass shootings rose after the ban ended. But they acknowledge that it is difficult to prove cause and effect. Researchers with Rand, a policy-analysis nonprofit, looked at several studies of state and federal bans and found the evidence inconclusive.
Many officials have blamed untreated mental illness for mass shootings and have called for more investment in mental health services as a solution. But experts say mental illness is not a key factor in most mass shootings, and claiming a link unfairly stigmatizes people who live with mental illness.
It is impossible to know for sure how many people own AR-15s because the federal government is prohibited from maintaining a national registry of gun ownership. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group, examined three decades of manufacturing, import and export data and estimated that in 2020 there were 24.4 million AR-15s in private circulation in the U.S. (the foundation calls the gun a “modern sporting rifle”). A 2021 Georgetown University survey of U.S. gun owners projected that 24.6 million have owned an AR-15 or similar rifle.
Gun owners have said in surveys that they use AR-15s for personal protection, recreational shooting, competitive shooting and hunting. Sales often increase when gun owners perceive that politicians will seek stricter gun regulations, which typically happens after high-profile mass shootings, researchers say. Gun buying also spiked during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gun buyers have become more diverse in recent years, with particular growth in women and Black customers, retailers say. That trend likely applies to the AR-15, although data doesn’t get that specific, said Matt Manda, the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s manager of public affairs.
The gun industry’s marketing techniques have been scrutinized by Congress. A 2022 investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, led by Democrats, said gun companies “tout assault rifles’ military pedigree, make covert references to violent white supremacists like the Boogaloo Boys, and prey on young men’s insecurities by claiming their weapons will put them ‘at the top of the testosterone food chain.’”
Representatives of two top gun-makers testified at a July 2022 committee hearing that blame should be focused on the people who used the guns to kill people, not the guns themselves. “I believe that these murders are local problems that have to be solved locally,” Marty Daniel, the then-CEO of Daniel Defense, said.
At that hearing, and many others around the country in which new gun restrictions have been debated, families of people killed in mass shootings joined advocates in pressing for new regulations on semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15.
Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter, Lexi Rubio, was killed in a 2022 attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has been one of them.
In May, she showed up at the Texas Capitol to press a state legislative committee to back a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. The committee voted in favor of it, but the bill’s chances of becoming law are remote because it is not supported by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“At the end of every day, I’m just a mom who wants my daughter back,” Rubio said. “And a mom who doesn’t want another mom to know my pain.”