The AR-15 assault rifle was engineered to create what one of its designers called “maximum wound effect.” Its tiny bullets – needle-nosed and weighing less than four grams – travel nearly three times the speed of sound. As the bullet strikes the body, the payload of kinetic energy rips open a cavity inside the flesh – essentially inert space – which collapses back on itself, destroying inelastic tissue, including nerves, blood vessels and vital organs. “It’s a perfect killing machine,” says Dr. Peter Rhee, a leading trauma surgeon and retired captain with 24 years of active-duty service in the Navy.
Rhee is most famous at home for saving the life of Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot point-blank in the head with a handgun fired by a mass shooter in 2011. “A handgun [wound] is simply a stabbing with a bullet,” says Rhee. “It goes in like a nail.” With the high-velocity rounds of the AR-15, he adds, “its as if you shot somebody with a Coke can.”
Versions of the AR-15 have been the U.S. military’s standard-issue assault rifle in every war since Vietnam. But only in the past dozen years have semi-automatic models become a fixture of American life. Gun-makers – emboldened by Congress and cloaked in the Second Amendment – have elevated the AR-15 into an avatar of civilian manhood, independence and patriotism. In the process, this off-patent combat rifle has become an infinitely customizable weapon platform that now accounts for nearly one in five guns sold in America. The federal government has deemed them “semi-automatic assault rifles” with magazine capacities that serve “no sporting purpose.” But the National Rifle Association now simply calls the AR-15 “America’s Rifle.”
The mass-market boom of the AR has been horrific for the rest of us. Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary with a Bushmaster AR-15, laying down more than 150 rounds in less than five minutes and slaughtering 20 first-graders. James Holmes wielded a Smith & Wesson “Military & Police” (M&P) AR-15 fitted with a 100-round drum magazine in his siege of a movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 58. The San Bernardino, California, shooters carried a pair of AR-15s in their ISIS-inspired rampage that left 14 dead. Orlando shooter Omar Mateen deployed Sig Sauer’s concealable “next-generation AR” to murder 49 and injure dozens more at the Pulse nightclub – the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
“Time and time again we see it used to do what it was designed to do, which is to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time,” says Mark Barden, managing director of the Sandy Hook Promise, a group dedicated to protecting children from gun violence. Barden’s son Daniel – precocious, kindhearted, an ace at foosball – was one of the students murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. “It’s designed for combat,” he says. “It doesn’t have any practical application in civilized society.”
Gun-makers call the civilian AR-15 a “modern sporting rifle,” and insist that the restriction on automatic fire somehow neuters the weapon. The industry’s trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), maintains that “AR-15-style rifles are NOT ‘assault weapons,'” adding that the guns “look like military rifles . . . but function like other semi-automatic civilian sporting firearms.” This line of argument is hard to square with the Army’s own Field Manual, which instructs soldiers that semi-automatic fire is the “most important firing technique during fast-moving, modern combat,” adding, “It is surprising how devastatingly accurate rapid semi-automatic fire can be.”
The U.S. military chose the AR as its infantry rifle for the same reason it’s a clear and present danger in the civilian world: It is uncannily easy to use. Before a trip to Threat Dynamics’ firing range in August, I had never shot a firearm. My trainer – a pale-eyed ex-cop named Chris – hands me an AR made by Daniel Defense, which markets its guns with photographs of U.S. soldiers and the tag line “Use What They Use.”
Despite the menacing look of the weapon, Chris assures me, “Little kids can shoot ’em – there’s so little recoil.” Inside the range, I assume a combat stance. Hips nearly square to the target. Knees bent. Crunching slightly forward at the waist. Right eye behind the scope. Thumb on the safety. Flick. Release.
Firing at the torso of the man-size silhouette, I blast through two boxes of ammunition. When my half-hour session with Chris is almost up, I load a final 20 rounds into my magazine, place the head of the target in my sights, 60 feet downrange – and unload.
The rifle shoots faster than I can aim, but I’m learning the bouncing rhythm of the muzzle. How it rises with each shot, before settling back on target. Faster now. Boom. Boom boom. Boomboomboom. In less than a minute, my magazine is empty. Eighteen shots are direct hits – to the forehead, face and chin. One bullet drifted down the jugular. I miss only once.
The story of how this masterpiece of war technology morphed into a billion-dollar blockbuster for domestic gun-makers lays bare both the power, and recklessness, of the gun industry. With millions of semi-automatic assault rifles now in civilian hands, and little more than a credit-card swipe standing between an unhinged killer and one of these weapons, the AR-15 has emerged as the brightest flashpoint in America’s gun debate. Following each new attack, as gun-control advocates demand tighter restrictions on assault rifles, customers rush to local gun shops to stockpile more, driving a surge in gun-maker profits.
Before the election of Donald Trump, the legal tide had been turning. Federal courts had backed state laws limiting the deadliness of the AR-15. The Supreme Court even let stand a local ordinance banning them outright. The NRA would never admit it, says Adam Skaggs, litigation director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but current precedent is clear: The Second Amendment, he says, “is not violated by a law that says you can’t walk down the street with an AR-15 and a 30-round magazine.”
Now, the future of civilian assault rifles looks much more secure. Trump, helped to the White House by millions in advertising paid for by the NRA, is poised to overhaul the federal judiciary to the gun lobby’s specifications. That process begins with the replacement of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia with another pro-gun stalwart. During the campaign, Trump blasted assault-weapon restrictions as “a total failure.” “The government,” his platform says, “has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.”
The assault rifle was born in World War II. The Nazi “Sturm-gewehr,” or “storm rifle,” introduced in 1944, was designed to marry the light weight and rapid fire of a submachine gun to the power and accuracy of a rifle. It came equipped with a 30-round detachable magazine, and proved a deadly asset to Nazis mowing down waves of Russian conscripts on the Eastern Front. The Soviets debuted their own combat rifle in 1947: the rugged, nearly indestructible Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47 – faced by American GIs in virtually every military conflict since.
The “assault rifle” (a de-Hitlerized translation) evolved as warfare leaped out of the trenches into more open, guerrilla-style clashes. The United States was late to enter the light-arms race, but would eventually answer with the AR-15. The “AR” doesn’t stand for “assault rifle”; it stands for Armalite Rifle – named for the small California company that designed the weapon. A subsidiary of an airplane manufacturer, Armalite fashioned lightweight guns from aircraft-grade aluminum and modern plastics, aiming to bring the bulky wood-and-steel rifles lugged by soldiers in World War II and Korea into the jet age.
In 1957, the Army approached Armalite’s star gun designer, Eugene Stoner, with a tall order: Produce a six-pound, high-velocity rifle, firing in semi- and full-automatic modes, with firepower capable “of penetrating a steel helmet or standard body armor at 500 yards.” Stoner was a brilliant Marine Corps vet with no more than a high school degree from Long Beach Poly. He wore owlish glasses and had a taste for bow ties, giving him an unassuming look, the Orville Redenbacher of machine-gun design. His answer to the Army’s request was the AR-15, an exceptionally balanced gun with little recoil – meaning soldiers could more easily keep the rifle level, and on target, in a firefight.
By the Army’s own metrics, Stoner had built a superior war-fighting machine. A 1959 Pentagon report found that Stoner’s gun was “much more effective” both in “volume of fire and number of targets hit” than its competition, the M14 rifle, concluding that a “5- to 7-man squad armed with the AR-15 would be as effective as a 10-man squad armed with the M14.” The chief of the Air Force, Curtis LeMay, famous for directing the firebombing of Tokyo and inspiring the cigar-chomping General Ripper character in Dr. Strangelove, had fallen hard for the gun while shooting watermelons with an AR-15 at a Fourth of July celebration. After atomizing two of the party’s three melons, legend has it, LeMay placed the third in his sights before reconsidering: “Let’s eat the son of a bitch.”
But the M14 had other powerful champions – and inertia – on its side. The gun fired the large-caliber bullets that the Army had trusted for decades, and the “big bore” boys at the Pentagon hated the tiny, high-velocity rounds of the AR. Tradition won out; the M14 moved into production. President Kennedy personally ordered General LeMay to stop pestering the Pentagon. Armalite, unconvinced its gun had a military future, sold the rights to Colt for $75,000 and a royalty of 4.5 percent on future manufacture.
It would take the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – the tech-focused Pentagon arm today known as DARPA – to assure the AR-15’s future as a combat weapon. It lobbied Pentagon brass to secure 1,000 rifles for use by South Vietnamese troops and their American special-forces trainers in 1961. The rifle surpassed all expectations in combat. And by August 1962, ARPA had issued a confidential report on the weapon’s performance in war.
The AR-15 suited the “violent short clashes at close ranges which are characteristic of guerrilla warfare in Vietnam,” ARPA reported, noting that this “extremely mobile type of offensive warfare” had placed a “high premium on small, lightweight weapons.” The AR-15 is now marketed as a macho gun; a notorious Bushmaster ad touts the rifle with the slogan “Consider your man card reissued.” But ARPA praised the weapon as “well-suited to the small stature of the Vietnamese,” whose “average soldier,” it reported, “stands five feet tall and weighs 90 pounds.”
But it was the killing power of the AR-15 that turned the heads of Pentagon bureaucrats and congressional appropriators alike. The battlefield testimonials included in the ARPA report are horrific: One describes an Army Ranger killing a Viet Cong soldier at about 15 meters with a three-round burst. “One round in the head – took it completely off,” it reads. “Another in the right arm, took it completely off, too. One round hit him in the right side, causing a hole about five inches in diameter.” Each shot was a killer: “Any one of the three would have caused death.”
Another battlefield dispatch records the carnage after a team of Rangers ambushed a Viet Cong position, killing five. The report enumerated the wounds inflicted, including: a back wound that “caused the thoracic cavity to explode”; a buttock wound that “destroyed all tissue of both buttocks”; and finally “a heel wound,” where “the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.” All the deaths were “instantaneous,” ARPA reported, “except the buttock wound. He lived approximately five minutes.”
The “phenomenal lethality” of the AR-15 described by ARPA was decisive, according to a later Pentagon report. LeMay’s pending request for the Air Force to procure AR-15s got the green light. In December 1963, the Army adopted the AR-15 – rebranding it the M16. President Kennedy was soon photographed admiring one in the Oval Office. After a rocky rollout – early models were prone to jam – AR-platform combat rifles and carbines have towered as the U.S. military’s infantry weapons of choice ever since.
The AR-15 did not immediately pop as a mass-market gun. It was introduced to civilians in the early 1960s, when Colt’s “AR-15 Sporter” was pitched as a “superb hunting partner.” But the rifle – tarnished by its association with America’s deadly misadventure in Vietnam – didn’t prove popular with the gun-buying public until this century, when production soared from 60,500 in 2001 to 1.27 million in 2012.
The boom was ignited by the expiration of the federal assault-weapons ban in 2004. The ban, enacted by President Bill Clinton, had done little to limit the deadliness of the AR-15; John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the D.C. snipers, wielded a “ban-compliant” Bushmaster in 2002. But the law had blocked sale of militarized upgrades – ranging from 30-round magazines to flash suppressors and grenade launchers. “The end of the assault-weapons ban,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, “allowed for the customization and modification of these weapons to make them look even more militaristic, even more grand in the eyes of their owners.”
The following year, amid a $1.7 million lobbying blitz by the NRA, Congress passed a sweeping change to American gun law. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), signed by President George W. Bush, provides gun manufacturers with near-total liability protection for the criminal misuse of their products. “The perception for the gun industry is: ‘We can’t get sued,'” says Josh Koskoff, a Connecticut attorney who filed a case on behalf of Newtown families. “‘We can be as unethical and as wild and aggressive in the marketing as we want.'” (The industry’s trade group, the NSSF, declined to comment.)
Sales soared as a torrent of consumer gun marketing played up the battlefield appeal of these weapons, including tag lines such as: “The closest you can get without having to enlist.” Other gun-makers now pitch their weapons with explicit depictions of combat, or under the label “tactical” – referring to SWAT-style urban warfare. Many invoke what Tom Diaz, a top expert on gun violence, calls “the portentous scenario.” It’s never quite clear what’s gone wrong – an invasion, a race war, social breakdown. “They connect that to this rifle,” says Diaz. “ ’And you’re gonna need it. And if you have it, you’re gonna have a fighting chance.'”
There are now more than 8.5 million civilian assault rifles on the U.S. market, an arsenal owned by some 5 million people. In 2014, according to an industry estimate, the total retail market for civilian assault rifles was at least $1.4 billion. These totals include weapons inspired by the Soviets’ AK. But the AR is far and away America’s favorite, with about 90 percent of civilian assault-rifle owners possessing at least one AR.
While gun-makers hype the killing power of the AR-15 to move product, the NSSF presents a softer face to policymakers, investors and journalists. In addition to its insistence that civilian assault rifles be called “modern sporting rifles” – newspeak first rolled out amid fears of regulation from Washington – the NSSF portrays the AR-15 as little more than a modern evolution of Grandpa’s hunting rifle. Even traditional bolt-action rifles, the group notes, had once evolved from weapons used in World War I.
While the AR platform has increasingly become the go-to rifle of mass killers – including self-radicalized terrorists like the San Bernardino shooters – the NRA extols the AR-15 as “Americans’ Best Defense Against Terror and Crime.” The group also promotes childhood exposure to the combat weapon. Its American Rifleman magazine recently featured a dispatch about teaching a “barely five-year-old boy” to shoot a Ruger-branded AR – a “21st Century Gun for a 21st Century Kid” – encouraging use of the “two-finger trigger-pull method” to help the child squeeze off rifle rounds. (The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.)
The NSSF periodically conducts research on civilian assault rifles. It publishes the data in reports intended for gun sellers for which it charges the public as much as $5,000. Their latest survey of civilian assault-rifle ownership, which I obtained, reveals that the average civilian assault-rifle owner keeps a small arsenal, owning three or more of the guns; 27 percent of owners have bought four or more.
The owners of these weapons, nearly without exception, are men. Despite the pink-camo-skinned AR-15s you may see displayed at your local gun seller, 99 percent of those who buy civilian assault rifles are men. They are often older: 61 percent are over 45. And most do not have children in the home – which is a blessing because many civilian assault-rifle owners fail to secure their arms; nearly one owner in five does not lock up his rifle, and more than 30 percent take no care to secure their ammunition.
Owning a civilian assault rifle is not a cheap hobby. Respondents reported having spent $1,100 on the last AR-15 they purchased, many of them tricked out with more than $400 in accessories. On average, civilian assault-weapon owners used their guns 16.5 times in the past year, firing off nearly 1,000 rounds in the process. Eight in 10 owners report they wish they could shoot more, but cite cost of ammo among the biggest impediments. (A single AR-15 round can cost anywhere from 30 cents to a dollar or more.)
The AR-15 is not a singular weapon. It’s now an open-source platform. The patent on the gun has long since expired, and its military specifications can be copied and tweaked by anyone. All an AR-15 gun-maker needs is a little startup capital and a marketing concept. “This is not a difficult industry,” says Diaz, the gun-violence expert. “If you have a machine shop, you can go into gun manufacturing.”
The part of the weapon that carries a serial number – the thing the government considers the gun – is the “lower receiver.” This is the part that holds the trigger and also accepts the magazine. Because manufacturers are all designing from the same specifications, nearly any AR-15 lower receiver can be fitted to any other AR manufacturer’s gun parts, including the upper receiver (where the explosive business of firing a bullet happens), barrels, magazines, hand guards and scopes. By mixing and matching, a single registered lower receiver can be turned into any number of assault options. “It’s like a Lego set,” says Diaz.
Take a “mil-spec” AR lower receiver. Using parts from Bushmaster, it can be built into a replica of the gun Adam Lanza wielded in Newtown. Build out the same “lower” again with components from Smith & Wesson’s M&P line and you can re-create the rifle James Holmes used to murder movie patrons in Aurora, Colorado. Purists will split hairs over whether the Sig Sauer MCX – the massacre weapon used in Orlando – should rightly be called an AR. Its piston-driven reloading mechanism more closely resembles an AK-47’s. No matter: You can use the same generic AR lower receiver to build out an MCX. “The upper is backwards-compatible with any mil-spec AR lower,” Sig’s marketing materials attest, “allowing you to upgrade your existing AR platform to the Sig MCX.”
Efforts to hold the AR-15 industry accountable for its deadly products and militarized marketing practices have been frustrated in court – just as the NRA and the gun industry intended when they persuaded Congress to pass PLCAA. The parents of one Aurora victim sued the online retailers that sold Holmes more than 5,000 rounds of ammo to go along with his 100-round drum magazine. That suit was tossed by a federal judge who ruled that the “plain language of the PLCAA and its stated legislative purpose is to protect firearms and ammunition sellers from liability.” Adding insult to injury, the family that sued has been ordered to repay the retailers’ $203,000 in legal fees.
Even families of the children of Newtown have been denied a day in court. In a long-shot bid, Koskoff, the Connecticut attorney, filed suit against Remington Outdoor, which celebrates itself to investors as America’s “largest producer of commercial MSR” – the acronym for “modern sporting rifles.”
One of Remington’s top brands is Bushmaster, maker of the rifle Nancy Lanza owned and that her son Adam Lanza used in Newtown. Bushmaster has sold civilian assault rifles under tag lines that include “Forces of opposition, bow down,” and its 2016 catalog explicitly markets its AR-15s under the military designations of their Army forebears, including a “20-Inch Barreled M16-Type Rifle” and an “M4-Type Patrolman’s Carbine M4-A2.”
The gun conglomerate is owned by a private-equity group called Cerberus Capital Management. In the aftermath of the Newtown killings, Cerberus – whose clients included the pension funds of teachers and first-responders – earned a flood of goodwill by vowing to divest itself of the gun business, calling the Sandy Hook tragedy “a watershed event.”
But this gesture of humanity quickly took a back seat to business imperatives. Reportedly unable to fetch the $1 billion it wanted for the gun manufacturer, Cerberus opted instead to buy out offended investors. In a letter, the firm reported it was “disappointed” it could not orchestrate “an outright sale,” but the buyout would allow the firm to meet its fiduciary “obligations” without getting “drawn into the national debate.” In a nifty bit of whitewash, Cerberus’ gun holdings, previously known as “Freedom Group,” rebranded as “Remington Outdoor Company.” (Cerberus declined to comment.)
In December 2014, Koskoff filed a suit on behalf of the Newtown families against Remington over negligent entrustment – an exemption written into PLCAA. Negligent entrustment is a core principle of common law that says you’re liable if you give a dangerous object to a person likely to pose an unreasonable risk to themselves or others. The classic example is handing the keys to your car to a drunk person. The theory of the Newtown lawsuit was that it was negligent for Remington to entrust a weapon like the AR-15 to the general public. The suit argued that the weapon – responsibly entrusted to the regimented worlds of the military and law enforcement for which it was designed – should never have been unleashed upon a poorly trained, undisciplined civilian consumer market.
Soldiers, the lawsuit noted, are given more than 100 hours of training before they are trusted to care for their own gun. In the civilian world, by contrast, AR-15s can be bought by people too young to buy alcohol; many states allow AR-15 possession by minors, including by those 14 years old or younger.
The lawsuit also contended that Remington knew its sale of AR-15s to civilians would allow “individuals unfit to operate these weapons to gain access” and “inflict unparalleled civilian carnage.” In the case of Lanza, the 20-year-old was able to fire at least 154 rounds in an attack lasting just 264 seconds. “It’s not like the gun-makers were surprised,” Koskoff says. “Oh, my God, an assault weapon was used to kill people in an assault. They cashed in on that imagery. And muscularity. And violence.” (Remington did not respond to a request for comment.)
Ultimately, Koskoff’s strategy to apply negligent entrustment to a class as broad as “civilians” failed. Dismissing the case in October, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis wrote that the Newtown families’ claims “do not fit” within the “narrow exception” for negligent entrustment written into the law, and that “the criminal misuse of a weapon by Adam Lanza” instead “falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by PLCAA.”
Barden, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has made fighting for stricter gun laws his “life’s work.” The legal setback, he says, was a blow, but he also sees it as a teachable moment. He recalls how, in the weeks after the Newtown shooting, his wife sat at her computer “trying to get her head around how this individual who lived a few blocks away from us got his hands on a military-style assault rifle and carried it into our son’s school to kill him.” The advertising they encountered was shocking. “The language that they use to market these combat weapons – ‘get your man card,’ ‘the next best thing to enlisting’ and ‘forces of opposition, bow down’ – is chilling and reckless,” he says, noting that it appeals to the worst urges of “these violence-prone, disenfranchised young men.”
Barden joined the lawsuit, in part, to highlight what he calls “the gross hypocrisy” of PLCAA. “We wanted to bring awareness,” he says, that “the deadliest consumer product known to man enjoys this blanket immunity to liability.” That the case was dismissed, he adds, only underscores the message: “Here we have suffered the greatest tragedy – due to someone murderously using this combat weapon on children in a school. And we don’t even get our day in court. I think it should wake people up.”
For years, makers of AR-15s and their allies have shrouded civilian assault rifles in the Constitution. The NRA insists that the “firearms that gun-control supporters call ‘assault weapons’ and ammunition magazines that they call ‘large’ are among the arms protected by the Second Amendment.”
But this NRA declaration is not grounded in legal precedent. The current interpretation of the Second Amendment, guaranteeing a personal right to firearms ownership, has only been with us since 2008, when Justice Scalia authored the landmark Heller decision. But that case – overturning a ban on handgun possession – opened new legal puzzles. According to the decision, the Second Amendment does not guarantee the “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” And the right to gun ownership is anchored in self-defense, with Scalia dubbing a handgun the “quintessential self-defense weapon.”
Since Newtown, states from Connecticut to Colorado to California have passed strict limits on the ownership of civilian assault rifles, focusing chiefly on the capacity of available magazines. To date, federal judges have upheld these restrictions as consistent with Heller.
In fact, courts have found that the Second Amendment allows much stricter regulation. A law passed in 2013 in Highland Park, Illinois – a suburb of Chicago – bans AR-15s by name, along with other “assault weapons” and any magazine with a capacity greater than 10 rounds. Within city limits, the law establishes that AR-15s are “contraband” that “shall be seized and destroyed.” Violators are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.
Predictably, the law incurred the wrath of the NRA, which argued in an amicus brief that the city’s statute was plainly unconstitutional. “Because the Second Amendment right applies to the common semi-automatic firearms and magazines the City targets,” NRA lawyers wrote, “they cannot be banned.” The federal circuit judge disagreed, ruling that “some categorical bans on the kinds of weapons that can be possessed are proper.” The city’s assault-weapons ban served a legitimate purpose, he wrote, because it may “reduce the overall dangerousness of crime” and “may reduce the carnage if a mass shooting occurs.”
In December 2015, the Supreme Court declined to review the ruling in the Highland Park case – letting that city’s ban stand for now. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a fiery dissent accusing the circuit court of “relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right.” Only one other justice – Scalia – sided with Thomas, a disturbing sign for the NRA and gun-makers. “Even when Justice Scalia was alive,” says Skaggs, the litigation director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “the Supreme Court was signaling that it was constitutional to restrict access to assault weapons.”
With the death of Scalia, the NRA’s champion on the bench, the gun lobby flexed its muscle in Washington, leading Republicans to blockade President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. In March, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that Garland was unconfirmable due to the influence of the NRA: “I can’t imagine that a Republican majority in the United States Senate would want to confirm, in a lame-duck session, a nominee opposed by the National Rifle Association,” he said. Looking ahead to a possible Hillary Clinton presidency, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, called the 2016 election “all or nothing,” and his group spent $30 million and aired nearly 16 percent of campaign ads supporting Donald Trump this election cycle.
The NRA TV blitz was, in turn, funded by gun-makers. Ruger donated at least $5 million to the fight; Smith & Wesson chipped in another $1 million. The NSSF staged its own electioneering campaign, independent of the NRA, called GunVote, backed by $500,000 from Smith & Wesson, and $100,000 each from Sig Sauer and Ruger. According to exit polls, 60 percent of voters with a gun in the house voted for Trump, as did 75 percent of voters who oppose stricter gun control.
It’s no mystery why the NRA was so determined to block Clinton. She campaigned for the White House as the most pro-gun-control presidential candidate in memory. She directly antagonized the NRA, and made her vote against the 2005 gun-liability shield, PLCAA, a central contrast in her contest with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She called open-carry laws that make it legal to tote a civilian assault rifle in a supermarket “despicable.” In the aftermath of Orlando, she insisted flatly, “I believe weapons of war have no place on our streets.” Audio surfaced during the campaign of Clinton calling the Supreme Court “wrong on the Second Amendment” and even talking up a gun-buyback program like the one that helped Australia halt its scourge of gun violence.
In the immediate term, Trump’s election will not bestow upon the AR-15 the Second Amendment protection the gun lobby seeks. For now, limiting the danger posed by assault rifles is less a constitutional fight than a political one – with states and communities standing up to declare that these combat-ready guns have no place in public life.
For the makers of civilian assault rifles, the arrival of a Trump presidency marks the beginning of a long game. They’re counting on the Republican to not only replace Scalia with another gun enthusiast, but to potentially remake the court by replacing aging liberal jurists – Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 83, and Stephen Breyer, 78 – with other Scalia clones. In such a scenario, a narrow 5-4 conservative majority suddenly becomes a seven-justice conservative bloc – of whom only five would need to be convinced that the AR-15 is a common and commonsense weapon for self-defense protected by the Heller decision and the Second Amendment. As Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, argued at the GOP Convention, the 2016 election was not about the “next four years; it’s about the next 40 years.”
Gun-control advocates will have to adapt not only to the evolution of the Trump court, but to a gun industry that’s already casting about for its next blockbuster weapon. The industry itself is warning of an “AR-15 bubble” and a market that has “matured.” It is seeking to replace waning AR profits, warns Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center, by rolling out even deadlier weapons. That new arsenal includes “next-generation ARs” like the Orlando gun. It means assault pistols – Uzi-size AR-15 variants with shortened muzzles. Shotguns are getting the AR-15 treatment: transformed into semi-automatic assault weapons, equipped with high-capacity magazines. A Georgia company has even revived the Nazi Sturm-gewehr, offering what it calls a “modern interpretation of the classic StG 44.”
This fight pits communities, seeking to protect the lives of their children from the heavily armed and unhinged, against an industry that is more confident than ever that it cannot be held liable for the carnage its weapons inflict. For now, the gun industry has a president who shares their blind faith in the supremacy of the market – even one where killing power is king. “They’ve embraced heightened lethality as the marketing lodestar,” Sugarmann says. “Things are only going to get worse.”
A version of this story was originally published November 21, 2016