It is revered as a modern-day musket.
It is reviled as a tool for mass killers.
The AR-15 wasn’t supposed to be a bestseller.
The rugged, powerful weapon was originally designed as a soldiers’ rifle in the late 1950s. “An outstanding weapon with phenomenal lethality,” an internal Pentagon report raved. It soon became standard issue for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, where the weapon earned a new name: the M16.
But few gunmakers saw a semiautomatic version of the rifle - with its shrouded barrel, pistol grip and jutting ammunition magazine - as a product for ordinary people. It didn’t seem suited for hunting. It seemed like overkill for home defense. Gun executives doubted many buyers would want to spend their money on one.
The industry’s biggest trade shows banished the AR-15 to the back. The National Rifle Association and other industry allies were focused on promoting traditional rifles and handguns. Most gun owners also shunned the AR-15, dismissing it as a “black rifle” that broke from the typical wood-stocked long guns that were popular at the time.
“We’d have NRA members walk by our booth and give us the finger,” said Randy Luth, the founder of gunmaker DPMS, one of the earliest companies to market AR-15s.
Today, the AR-15 is the best-selling rifle in the United States, industry figures indicate. About 1 in 20 U.S. adults - or roughly 16 million people - own at least one AR-15, according to polling data from The Washington Post and Ipsos.
Almost every major gunmaker now produces its own version of the weapon. The modern AR-15 dominates the walls and websites of gun dealers.
The AR-15 has gained a polarizing hold on the American imagination. Its unmistakable silhouette is used as a political statement emblazoned on T-shirts and banners and, among a handful of conservative members of Congress, on silver lapel pins. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama, introduced a bill in February to declare the AR-15 the “National Gun of America.”
It also has become a stark symbol of the nation’s gun violence epidemic. Ten of the 17 deadliest U.S. mass shootings since 2012 have involved AR-15s.
This transformation - from made-for-combat weapon to mass-market behemoth and cultural flash point - is the product of a sustained and intentional effort that has forged an American icon.
A Washington Post investigation found that the AR-15′s rise to dominance over the past two decades was sparked by a dramatic reversal in strategy by the country’s biggest gun companies to invest in a product that many in the industry saw as anathema to their culture and traditions.
The Post review - based on interviews with 16 current and former industry executives, some of them talking publicly in depth for the first time, along with internal documents and public filings that describe the changes in previously unknown detail - found that the U.S. firearms industry came to embrace the gun’s political and cultural significance as a marketing advantage as it grasped for new revenue.
The shift began after the 2004 expiration of a federal assault weapons ban that had blocked the sales of many semiautomatic rifles. A handful of manufacturers saw a chance to ride a post-9/11 surge in military glorification while also stoking a desire among new gun owners to personalize their weapons with tactical accessories.
“We made it look cool,” Luth said. “The same reason you buy a Corvette.”
Through it all, even after repeated mass killings involving the AR-15 that accounted for some of the nation’s darkest moments, efforts in Congress to resurrect an assault weapons ban repeatedly fizzled.
Calls by Democratic politicians to renew the ban fell short, with some in their own party voting against it at key moments. Almost no Republican would even entertain the idea. President Donald Trump briefly considered pushing for a ban, asking aides at one point why anyone needed an AR-15, but backed away after advisers warned he would anger his base as well as the NRA.
“The protection of the AR-15 has become the number one priority for the gun lobby,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal supporter of stronger gun laws. He added: “It makes it harder to push this issue on the table because the gun lobby does so much messaging around it.”
Free from congressional scrutiny, the AR-15 has become a consumer product like none other - a barometer of fear and a gauge of political identity, its market success driven by the divisions it sows.
While handguns are involved in the bulk of U.S. gun homicides - responsible for 90 percent of the deaths in cases where details are available, compared to less than 5 percent for rifles, the FBI says - AR-15 sales jump the most with each school shooting and contentious presidential campaign.
They soared in the run-up to the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and after the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and a high school in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, and again ahead of the turbulent 2020 presidential election.
Today, the industry estimates that at least 20 million AR-15s are stored and stashed across the country.
More than 13.7 million of those have been manufactured by U.S. gunmakers just since the Newtown massacre in late 2012, with those sales generating roughly $11 billion in revenue, according to a Post analysis of industry estimates through 2020, the most recently available data. In other words, at least two-thirds of these guns have been made in just the past decade.
Supporters of the AR-15 say its popularity reflects its legitimacy as a tool for law-abiding people. “This firearm is lawfully owned by millions of Americans - used in shooting competitions, for recreational purposes, hunting and home protection,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
Others say this was not the original idea behind the gun.
Eugene Stoner, a World War II veteran who invented the AR-15 in the late 1950s while working at Armalite, a small engineering firm in Hollywood, had no interest in civilians using his invention, said C. Reed Knight, who owns a Florida gunmaking company and considers Stoner his mentor.
“He looked at this thing as only for the military side of the house,” Knight said. Stoner, who died in 1997, thought his invention was past its prime by the mid-1990s, Knight said. He added that Stoner would have been horrified by the idea that “he invented the tool of all this carnage in the schools.”
Harry Falber, a former executive at Smith & Wesson, one of the country’s best-known firearms brands, saw how Stoner’s invention changed the gun industry. The AR-15′s success came at a huge price, he said.
“The firearms industry, in the aggregate, is very small,” Falber told The Post. “And look at the havoc it wreaks.”
A firearm initially unintended for civilians
Smith & Wesson made its name with handguns, such as Dirty Harry’s “Feeling Lucky?” six-shooter.
The company had never mass-produced a rifle in its storied history stretching to 1852.
That began to change in 2005.
It was a tough time for the firearms industry. Gun sales had been flat for several years, according to federal background check data, the best available proxy for the number of firearms sold. Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that American gunmakers produced fewer pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns in 2005 than they had five years earlier.
At Smith & Wesson, executives were looking around for new lines of business when, corporate filings show, a company survey detected strong consumer interest in one gun it didn’t make: a tactical rifle.
“The long gun market is a terrific opportunity,” Michael Golden, then the company’s chief executive, told financial analysts in August 2005.
And the power of the Smith & Wesson brand meant “we have got one foot in the door,” he said.
Neither Smith & Wesson nor Golden, who is no longer with the company, responded to multiple requests for comment.
The market for tactical rifles, such as the AR-15, was still largely untapped. None of the big gunmakers made one.
The AR-15 - Armalite Rifle Model 15 - was different from other military rifles, which had always used big, heavy rounds.
Designed around the Pentagon’s desire for a lightweight weapon to match Soviet rifles such as the AK-47, the AR-15 fired small bullets at very fast speeds. The higher velocity meant the tiny projectiles became unstable when they penetrated a human body, tumbling through flesh to create devastating wounds. But the real innovation was the addition of a small tube to redirect the gas from fired cartridges. This dampened recoil, making it easier to keep steady aim on a target.
The U.S. military started using the rifle during the Vietnam War, with Colt - which had acquired the gun’s patent rights from Armalite - winning the contract to produce the M16. The new gun was met by complaints that it was prone to jamming, even mid-firefight, until Colt revamped the design. Despite its mixed success, the new gun won over military leaders.
Colt held exclusive rights to the semiautomatic, civilian version of the AR-15 until 1977, when the patent expired. Then, other gunmakers could make and sell AR-15s of their own.
Most in the gun industry remained wary. For decades, the AR-15 was regarded as an outsider. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As the U.S. military was sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, gunmakers looked to play off the conflict-zone images of soldiers in tactical gear holding M16 and M4 carbine rifles. The next best thing for civilians was buying an AR-15.
“There has never been a better accidental advertising campaign in history,” said Doug Painter, a former president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms industry lobbying group.
Smith & Wesson’s first AR-15 was unveiled to the public in February 2006 at the industry’s marquee annual convention, the Shot Show in Las Vegas. It was called the M&P 15.
While the name indicated the gun was for professionals - “M” for military and “P” for police - the company always had its eyes on the consumer market, according to corporate filings and statements from executives. Golden told financial analysts a few months after the M&P 15′s debut that “our intent when we launched the new tactical rifle was to first penetrate the consumer market.”
Many gun company executives saw military and police sales as less profitable, due to lower prices and precise specifications, according to documents and interviews. But they were still important because of the “halo effect,” as a 2009 document prepared for Smith & Wesson called it, in which buyers would be attracted to what they saw professionals using.
The consumer “does pay attention to that,” a Smith & Wesson executive at the time, James Debney, would later explain to financial analysts in 2016.
The M&P 15 was a hit. Smith & Wesson reported revenue from this line of tactical rifles more than quintupled in the gun’s first five full years on the market - from $12.8 million to $75.1 million.
Other big gunmakers soon followed Smith & Wesson’s lead.
New Hampshire-based Sig Arms, later renamed Sig Sauer, said in late 2006 that it planned to make an AR-15 - soon after the firm had been “about two seconds away from imploding,” chief executive Ron Cohen later told Management Today.
The new rifle was credited with helping save the company. Sig Sauer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Wall Street noticed the sales blitz, too.
A private equity firm called Cerberus Capital Management had rolled up several gunmakers into a single conglomerate called Freedom Group. In late 2007, it purchased AR-15 maker DPMS, which was bringing in nearly $100 million in annual sales, said Luth, its founder.
“They saw the AR-15 as the cash cow, which it was,” Luth said.
The change in attitudes toward the AR-15 occurred with “mind-boggling” speed, recalled Ryan Busse, who wrote about his turn from gun industry executive to critic in his 2021 book “Gunfight.”
The AR-15 was suddenly being celebrated after years of being widely viewed with suspicion, Busse said. Gunmakers were no longer avoiding the gun that many had once regarded as the kind of weapon that society would disdain.
He recalled the pressure within the industry to either get on board with the AR-15 or keep quiet. In 2007, prominent hunting writer and TV host Jim Zumbo lost his industry jobs after calling for a ban on hunting with AR-15s. His fate became a watchword: Cross the AR-15 and you might get Zumboed. Zumbo did not respond to requests for comment.
“Nobody thought AR-15s were a good idea just a couple years ago,” Busse said. “And then you couldn’t criticize them without getting fired.”
A marketplace and rebrand for the AR-15
In 2008, economic crisis and political upheaval bolstered the AR-15′s market appeal, according to several industry insiders, as the stock market collapsed under the weight of soured mortgage securities and the country elected its first Black president, a Democrat portrayed by conservatives as an anti-gun radical.
Obama’s victory created an opening for pro-gun groups to tease the potential for a new assault weapons ban - a claim that industry executives have credited with energizing AR-15 sales.
In 2008, when growing demand led U.S. gunmakers to increase production of all firearms by 15 percent, AR-15 production rose by 65 percent, according to government and industry figures. These AR-15s were rapidly becoming a larger share of the overall firearms market - reaching 10 percent of all guns made that year for the first time.
Jeff Buchanan, then-chief financial officer at Smith & Wesson, recalled several years later at a business conference that Obama spurred sales “because he was a pronounced liberal” and “people buy because they are afraid of future legislation.”
Obama was mockingly crowned 2009′s “gun salesman of the year” by the gun-friendly news service Outdoor Wire.
That same year, in what many industry insiders saw as a watershed moment, another legendary American gunmaker, Ruger, entered the AR-15 market with its SR-556. The Southport, Conn.-based company had a reputation for high-end firearms. Its corporate motto was “Arms Makers for Responsible Citizens.”
Michael Fifer, the gunmaker’s CEO at the time, described to financial analysts in 2009 how Ruger brought in roughly $200 from each handgun - but each AR-15-style rifle brought in $1,000.
“That’s kind of a 5-to-1 ratio there,” Fifer said.
Ruger declined to comment through its general counsel.
AR-15 fans saw Ruger’s new rifle as validation of a once-taboo gun.
“There is no better illustration for this change than the Evil Black Rifle itself which has just joined the Ruger product offering,” Steve Johnson wrote on his popular Firearm Blog, using a sarcastic name popular with gun owners for AR-15s.
Getting comfortable with the AR-15, industry allies worked to soften the image of the “black rifle.”
NSSF executives recalled in interviews with The Post that they bemoaned that the public mistakenly thought the “AR” stood for “assault rifle.”
“We should not cede the rhetorical high ground to our political enemies,” Larry Keane, the NSSF’s general counsel, recalled saying during a 2009 meeting.
They brainstormed ways to rebrand the gun and win over traditional hunters.
“I just said, ‘It’s a modern sporting rifle,’” recalled Painter, then the NSSF president. “And there the phrase stuck.”
The NSSF just needed to persuade others to use the term, which it shortened to “MSR.”
Glenn Sapir, then the NSSF’s director of editorial services, recalled that executives pressed gunmakers and industry publications to adopt the name. It slowly began popping up in gun magazines and catalogues. Companies used it during earnings calls. Gun owners were given pocket fact cards with the preferred talking points.
A four-page ad from the NSSF’s foundation spelled out the campaign.
“Some hunters look askance at AR-style rifles, and that’s understandable,” read the ad in the November 2009 issue of Outdoor Life magazine. “They don’t look like any type of rifle they, their dads or granddads ever carried into the woods. Looks can be deceiving, however, and in the case of AR-platform rifles, they certainly are.”
Some AR-15 supporters saw the MSR campaign as a phony attempt to make the black rifle seem less ominous - even though what many loved most about it was the threatening look.
“The true AR enthusiasts, they kind of saw through it,” Luth said. “It stuck, but not with the true believers.”
How gunmakers craft ‘realistic’ gaming experiences
Video games introduced a new generation to the AR-15 through popular first-person shooter games such as “Call of Duty.” Players got to simulate using military weapons with down-to-the-bolt realism.
The firearms industry was eager to help out.
In 2010, representatives of two gun manufacturers and a video game maker converged at an outdoor shooting range north of Las Vegas. Employees from two Freedom Group subsidiaries deployed a stockpile of weapons, including AR-15s, while technicians from Infinity Ward, developer of “Call of Duty,” carefully recorded the sounds, according to participants. Infinity Ward’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, declined to comment.
No detail, even the click of inserting a magazine, was too small to capture, participants said.
“We went through all the guns slowly and methodically, shooting until they got the quality sound they needed,” recalled Cory Weisnicht, who was an employee with a Freedom Group company tasked with firing the guns at the Clark County Shooting Complex.
The meeting reflected a move by some gunmakers at the time to strike licensing agreements with gaming firms to feature certain firearms, according to lawyers and experts, along with interviews and documents obtained by The Post.
“We wanted the brand exposure,” said a former employee of a Freedom Group subsidiary familiar with the Las Vegas meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company strategy.
The push for realism in shooting video games was influential for some buyers, retailers said. Many gun owners bought real-world versions of the firearms they used online, said Lucas Botkin, founder of the gun gear outfitter T.Rex Arms. And they could accessorize their guns in the same way.
Botkin recalled how he fixed up his first AR-15.
“I built it out very similarly to what I had in ‘Modern Warfare,’” he said, referring to the M4 in a game in the Call of Duty series. “It was my reference point.”
The AR-15 also was winning over new fans in other ways.
In the Philadelphia suburbs, Bill Shanley saw his first AR-15 up close when one of his adult sons came home with one in 2010. Shanley was in his mid-50s and had been raised around guns. He’d taught his own children how to shoot, too. But he’d never given much thought to the AR-15.
“It never would’ve occurred to me to get a gun like that,” Shanley recalled.
Father and son took the AR-15 to a gun range. Shanley couldn’t believe how loud it was, even with ear protection, the sound crashing off the range overhang. But the black rifle had little recoil. It was fun to shoot. Three shots with his old hunting rifle bruised his shoulder. Fifty rounds with the AR-15 felt like a breeze. Shanley was sold. He soon bought his own, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15.
The AR-15 changed Shanley’s thinking about these kinds of weapons. Now, he saw them as no different from the traditional firearms owned by his great-grandfather or the shotgun his uncle gave him when he was a teenager. His dad used to keep a shotgun at home for protection. Shanley, a manufacturing sales manager, started keeping an AR-15 in his bedroom.
“The AR is the modern-day musket,” he said.
An uneasiness over AR-15 marketing
Harry Falber knew little about the gun world when he joined Smith & Wesson, first as a consultant and then as head of licensing at the gunmaker’s headquarters in Springfield, Mass.
But he knew how to sell big consumer brands after years of working on ads at Volvo, Polaroid and Hallmark.
“A consumer wants to be identified with the product they are using, and a gun is no different,” said Falber, speaking publicly in detail about his tenure at Smith & Wesson for the first time.
Falber thought Smith & Wesson’s line of M&P firearms was “a brilliant marketing name.” And he loved Smith & Wesson’s strong reputation and long history.
But he said he struggled with how to sell a military weapon to civilians.
“I didn’t care what you did with it,” he said. “It was still a black gun.”
In late 2010, after he had been with the company for about a year, Falber commissioned a study comparing two Smith & Wesson ads that had recently appeared in Guns & Ammo magazine, according to internal documents obtained by The Post.
One showed Falber’s vision for selling guns. It featured a silver revolver and a black pistol, side by side against the light backdrop of a range target, under the block type “FINE-TUNED MACHINES.”
The other ad showed what looked like a police SWAT team officer, with dark gloves and tactical helmet, pointing an AR-15 at some unseen target in the distance. “THE CHOSEN ONE,” it read.
Consumers gave higher scores to the “FINE-TUNED MACHINES” ad, according to the report, which recommended that future ads be tested “to maximize message, positive image, and consumer motivation.”
Falber thought he had won the argument. He wanted to stress craftsmanship.
But Smith & Wesson went in the direction of “THE CHOSEN ONE.”
“They went full-bore into a dark, dark milieu,” Falber said.
Smith & Wesson was not alone in adopting messages that made Falber uneasy.
Bushmaster was running ads for its AR-15 with the line “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.” Daniel Defense posted social media ads showing its AR-15 with a helmeted soldier in a war zone under “USE WHAT THEY USE.”
“It was just appealing to the worst levels of what you can conjure up in someone’s mind,” Falber said. “And we’d been nurturing this.”
Daniel Defense declined to comment.
By 2011, the AR-15 and similar firearms enjoyed warm welcomes at the gun industry’s biggest events. They were the stars. Half the exhibition space at the annual Shot Show was now occupied by AR-15 gunmakers and tactical-equipment makers - even as the convention itself had doubled in size to 500,000 square feet, said Painter, the former NSSF president.
Every exhibitor clamored to be next to the big rifles because that’s where the crowds were.
“The best analogy is the AR rifle was like the kids who wore their baseball hats turned around,” Painter said. “It wasn’t cool until suddenly it became cool.”
But Falber wanted out.
“I just couldn’t stomach driving up there anymore,” he said.
In 2012, he quit Smith & Wesson.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary came two months later.
A little after 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, a man used a Bushmaster AR-15 to shoot his way into the school in Newtown. The gunman fired 154 rounds in minutes, striking children who were just 6 and 7 years old multiple times, according to a Connecticut state’s attorney’s report. Twenty children and six school employees were killed.
Falber lived 20 miles from Newtown. His wife worked in education. He could imagine the scene inside. He was in disbelief. He took no comfort in the fact that the rifle used in the massacre was made by Bushmaster and not Smith & Wesson.
“It ripped me apart,” he said.
Mass killings, politics fuel division on AR-15
The deadliest mass killing at a K-12 school in U.S. history focused attention like never before on the destructive power of the AR-15.
With Newtown, the weapon so meticulously marketed as a “sporting rifle” had been used as a killing machine that destroyed the bodies of young victims.
Cerberus, the private equity giant, soon announced plans to sell off Freedom Group - the conglomerate it had assembled as a big bet on the AR-15′s success and the owner of the Bushmaster brand. Cerberus declined to comment. One of its companies at the time owned Bushmaster, maker of the weapon used in the shooting, which would eventually defend its firearms advertising as lawful in a lawsuit filed by Newtown families alleging the gunmaker’s marketing was aimed at troubled young men.
Dick’s Sporting Goods immediately stopped selling AR-15s at its flagship stores during what the company called “this time of national mourning.”
Collaboration between gunmakers and the gaming industry also came to a quick end, said Glen Schofield, co-director of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.”
“We all kind of want to leave that era behind us,” he said. “Every time there was a mass shooting we got blamed.”
Days after the shooting, Obama called for new gun laws, citing public support for banning “military-style assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines. But any notion that the tragedy in Newtown would compel the politically influential NRA to compromise evaporated a week later. Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, unveiled a school security plan that boiled down to his mantra of “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
[Bans on high-capacity rifle magazines could save lives. Will they hold up in court?]
NRA leaders feared there would be momentum for a ban, and they even huddled with companies and lobbyists to begin plotting strategy, former officials said.
But the focus on banning the AR-15 only made the gun more popular with firearms enthusiasts, NRA leaders later said.
“People who never planned to buy one went out and got one,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist who was on the NRA board. “It was an f-you to the left.”
David Keene, who was the NRA’s president at the time, said that was the moment gun rights became a top issue for Republicans - with the AR-15 at the center.
“It became a political symbol,” said Keene, who also served as the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union.
The NRA’s embrace of the AR-15 was also practical, said Joshua Powell, a former longtime NRA adviser and chief of staff to LaPierre. NRA membership numbers were declining, but AR-15 owners remained loyal. Powell said the organization wanted the rifle to be viewed as “America’s gun.”
“The heart and soul of the NRA membership was hardcore AR folks,” Powell said.
The move to defend the AR-15 was off-putting to some NRA members, such as John Goodwin, who worked as an NRA lobbyist in the late 2000s and now belongs to a gun safety advocacy group called 97Percent. Discussions about the AR-15 sounded nothing like how he talked about the shotgun he used for bird hunting.
“They make it sound like the AR-15 is a religious relic,” Goodwin said.
The AR-15′s resilience post-Newtown was clear weeks later when the organizer of a major gun event in Harrisburg, Pa., the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, was forced to cancel amid the backlash from its decision to ban displays of the weapon.
“We’re not going to go into business with people saying you can’t have this gun or that gun,” Tommy Millner, CEO of the outdoor retailing giant Cabela’s at the time, recalled saying when he pulled the company’s sponsorship.
Any push for a new assault weapons ban seemed destined to fail in Congress. And gun sales were soaring again.
In December 2012, the same month as the Newtown shooting, monthly gun background checks hit what at the time was an all-time high of 2.8 million and stayed elevated for months.
Stores were picked clean of their AR-15 inventory. Prices jumped.
While the government doesn’t break out AR-15 sales, the industry group NSSF estimated that companies produced at least 3.2 million AR-15s firearms in 2012 and 2013 alone - more than they’d made in the entire previous decade.
When a new assault weapons ban finally came to a vote in the Democratic-led Senate soon after Newtown, it didn’t come close to passing - earning just 40 votes.
Just one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, voted in favor. But even more galling to gun-control advocates was that just 38 of the chamber’s 54 Democrats voted in favor.
After Congress failed to act, a handful of states, such as Connecticut, New York and Maryland, moved to pass their own assault weapons bans.
A firearm at the center of rallies, protests and ads
In March 2013, C.J. Grisham, then an Army master sergeant, decided to sling an AR-15 over his shoulder and take a walk with his son along a dirt road in tiny Temple, Tex. He wasn’t breaking the law, but a police officer stopped him.
“Some reason why you have this?” the officer asked, grabbing the rifle.
“‘Cause I can,” Grisham said.
The officer drew his pistol and pinned Grisham to the hood.
The encounter ended peacefully, but it was caught on video and posted online. Almost overnight, Grisham, who was later convicted of misdemeanor police interference, became the face of a movement.
“It wasn’t that I was carrying a rifle,” recalled Grisham, a former member of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. “It was the fact I was carrying that rifle.”
Grisham went on to create Open Carry Texas, a group advocating for carrying weapons in public. Open-carry demonstrations had been cropping up in conservative states since the 2008 election, typically with holstered pistols, but Grisham’s group pushed a new tactic. Its members made a show of carrying hunting rifles, shotguns and AR-15s as they visited places like Sonic, Chipotle and Home Depot.
Even the NRA was uneasy about the brash, public displays. It called the Texas protests “downright weird.” But so many gun owners sided with Grisham that the NRA quickly flip-flopped, saying its original opposition had been a mistake.
It became increasingly common to see people openly armed with black rifles at protests and political rallies - their AR-15s gripped in their hands or slung over their shoulders. The practice would take off on the far right, as armed demonstrators would play a prominent role in white-supremacist gatherings such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, as well as protests in 2020 against pandemic restrictions and counterdemonstrations against racial justice activists.
The AR-15 seemed to be everywhere. Its cultural profile was rising, not unlike the way the Soviet-made Kalashnikov became a symbol of insurgency and freedom for many around the world.
Companies such as Black Rifle Coffee Co. launched. Youth baseball teams ran AR-15 raffles as fundraisers. Companies offered free AR-15s with a new roof or new car, like banks giving away toasters for new checking accounts.
More political candidates were displaying AR-15s in campaign ads, too - and not just conservatives looking to impress their base. Jason Kander, an Army veteran and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, put out a 2016 campaign ad that showed him assembling an AR-15 while blindfolded. Kander did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2016, amid rising political tensions with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vying for the White House, the U.S. gun industry reported that it had crossed an important threshold: It produced more than 2 million AR-15s for the first time, 63 percent more than were manufactured the year before, according to NSSF estimates.
The AR-15 had truly entered the mainstream.
America’s angst with the AR-15
Manny Oliver tended to view guns like an outsider.
Ever since moving to Florida from his native Venezuela years ago, Oliver had noticed how people in his new home tied guns to notions of freedom and patriotism.
“In America, they treat guns like they are their salvation,” Oliver said.
He didn’t understand it. But like many people, he didn’t feel the need to.
By 2018, he and his wife, Patricia, had settled near Parkland, Fla., an affluent suburb outside Fort Lauderdale. Gun violence rarely intruded, except when mass shootings made the news. Oliver recalled talking with his teenage son, Joaquin, about the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a gunman with a Sig Sauer MCX semiautomatic rifle killed 49 people. And Joaquin had been rattled by the 2017 Las Vegas shooting - where a gunman used an arsenal that included AR-15s to kill 60 people - because his mom had been there on a business trip just a week earlier.
It seemed so random, Oliver said.
Four months later, on Valentine’s Day 2018, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland armed with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 and killed 17 people. Joaquin, 17, died after being shot multiple times, according to testimony at the gunman’s trial.
The shooting ignited a new kind of anti-gun activism that was intensely personal, such as the student-led March for Our Lives that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to the National Mall a month later. They were grieving. And they were angry.
“I refused to think this is a normal thing that happens,” Oliver said.
He and his wife founded a gun violence prevention group called Change the Ref and focused on attention-grabbing projects such as renting a billboard outside Smith & Wesson’s headquarters in Massachusetts with a picture of their son.
The Parkland shooting also highlighted America’s growing unease with the AR-15.
Kroger raised the minimum age to buy guns and ammunition from 18 to 21. Walmart - which had quietly stopped selling AR-15s three years earlier, in 2015 - did the same.
Top NRA officials worked to persuade other retailers, such as Bass Pro Shops, not to pull AR-15s from their shelves, according to Powell, the group’s former chief of staff.
“The gun folks will go nuts against you, and it’s going to be incredibly bad for business, and it’s going to get you a lot of bad press,” Powell recalled NRA officials telling Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. In other cases, Powell warned there would be NRA member boycotts.
Morris backed down, Powell said. “He understood who his customers were.”
A representative for Bass Pro Shops said Morris had no “recollection” of the conversation. “Decisions on the products and services we offer have always been based on customer preferences in compliance with all federal, state and local laws,” the spokesman said.
Unable to just move on, the shooting forced Oliver and his wife to reinvent their lives.
“We are not searching for happiness,” he said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to be happy.”
An uptick in shootings and a stalemate on gun control
Shortly after Parkland, President Donald Trump repeatedly floated the idea of supporting a new assault weapons ban.
He mentioned it on live television to one of the Senate’s most vocal gun-control backers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and in a private meeting with Parkland families. His comments rattled NRA officials and some of his own advisers.
NRA representatives later warned Trump against taking action. “They came up here and said to him, the base is going to blow you up,” according to a former official who sat in during a series of meetings with the NRA. They, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.
But Trump kept coming back to the idea, according to several former administration officials.
In the summer of 2019, after back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso involving an AR-15-style pistol and an AKM-style rifle, Trump told aides that he wanted to ban AR-15s, according to people present for the statements.
“I don’t know why anyone needs an AR-15,” Trump told aides as he flew on Marine One to the White House in August 2019, according to a person who heard his comments.
As one former official put it in describing the real estate developer turned politician, “His reflexes were a New York liberal on guns. He doesn’t have knee-jerk conservative reflexes.”
But Trump was also petrified of the NRA and others taking him on, former advisers said, and heard from a number of advisers that it would be unpopular. Trump ultimately stopped entertaining the idea of working with Democrats on gun control later that year, when he was caught in a scandal over his now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s president.
“F--- it, I’m not going to work with them on anything. They’re f---ing impeaching me,” Trump said in one Oval Office meeting, according to a participant.
Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, did not respond to detailed findings in this article but said that “there had been no bigger defender of the Second Amendment than President Trump.” He said that Trump had offered other proposals after mass shootings, such as adding security guards to schools and allowing teachers who are licensed to carry a weapon to do so.
Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut and a participant in a White House meeting on a potential ban, described Trump’s lack of action as a missed opportunity for an unusually powerful Republican leader. “I said this to Trump in that meeting: I think the Republican Party would have followed him wherever he went, and he ultimately decided to stand with the NRA,” Murphy said.
But, Murphy said, the burst of post-Parkland activism transformed gun politics among Democrats. Many in the party, he said, started to see gun control as a cause that could energize their core voters - rather than fearing it as one that would rile up the right.
“For whatever reason those kids finally shamed the Democratic Party into running on this issue,” Murphy said.
Several months after the Parkland shooting, one of the Democrats who had voted against an assault weapons ban in 2013 in the wake of Newtown announced he had changed his mind.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, who earned the NRA’s support as Virginia’s governor in the mid-2000s, represented a state that was now trending more liberal. He would go on to co-sponsor new proposed assault weapons bans in the Senate.
“While I was far from the deciding vote,” Warner wrote of the post-Newtown legislation in a 2018 op-ed in The Post, “I have nevertheless wrestled with that ‘no’ vote ever since.” Despite his own role in helping to defeat the ban, Warner described Congress’s failure to act as part of a “sad pattern of dysfunction.”
The AR-15, however, was about to reach new heights of popularity.
In 2020, a year of pandemic lockdowns, racial justice protests and a bitterly fought presidential campaign, U.S. gunmakers produced about 2.5 million AR-15s, according to the NSSF. That added up to roughly 1 in 4 of all guns that ATF said were manufactured in the United States.
Helped by its line of M&P 15 rifles, Smith & Wesson saw its sales nearly double to a record $1.1 billion, according to financial filings. CEO Mark Smith described it as “the most successful year in the 169-year history of the company.”
One Smith & Wesson M&P 15 sold in 2020 ended up in the hands of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two people and wounded a third during that summer’s racial justice protests in Kenosha, Wis.
Rittenhouse, later found not guilty based on claims of self-defense, explained during his trial why he chose an AR-15: “I thought it looked cool.” Rittenhouse could not be reached for comment.
The AR-15 was also especially alluring to the gunman who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo in May 2022.
“The AR-15 and its variants are very deadly when used properly,” he wrote in a manifesto filled with hateful vitriol. “Which is the reason I picked one.”
Ten days later, 19 schoolchildren and two adults were shot to death in Uvalde, Tex., with another AR-15, the Daniel Defense DDM4.
The string of attacks prompted President Biden, who as a senator had strongly supported the 1994 assault weapons ban, to promise a renewed effort to stop the sale of military-style weapons.
“For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept?” Biden said in June.
Then, a gunman with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 killed seven people at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill.
Later that month, executives from five gunmakers were called to Capitol Hill to answer questions about AR-15s. The hearing played out in expected fashion. Democrats decried the gunmakers, the Republicans defended them, and the gun executives deflected.
“A firearm, any firearm, can be used for good or for evil,” said Christopher Killoy, chief executive at Ruger.
Smith & Wesson’s chief executive refused to show up.
A House Oversight report produced for the hearing spotlighted the money earned by the gun industry, saying that Ruger’s gross earnings from AR-15 rifles nearly tripled from 2019 to 2021 to more than $103 million.
Two days later, the Democratic-led House passed a new assault weapons ban on a tight party-line vote of 217-213 - the first time the measure had been voted on in nearly three decades. But the Senate, also run by Democrats, never took action.
Amid the growing scrutiny, Smith & Wesson chief executive Mark Smith put out a statement claiming his company’s guns were not responsible for any crimes, but politicians and the media “are the ones to blame for the surge in violence and lawlessness.”
Smith’s comment was a revealing reminder of just how much the firearms industry had changed - from defender of a gun culture familiar to many Americans to a mass producer and leading champion of AR-15s.
That new legacy permeated this year’s Shot Show, held in January in Las Vegas.
At the same event two decades ago, AR-15s were shown only in restricted areas in the back.
This year, Smith & Wesson’s sprawling exhibit was surrounded by other gunmakers offering their own AR-15s, such as Mossberg, Black Rain Ordnance and Savage Arms. Smith & Wesson promoted its latest addition to its AR-15 lineup: the M&P Volunteer.
The closed-door trade event was open only to people with industry ties. But photographs and video reviewed by The Post showed racks of matte black Volunteer rifles in different configurations, such as the M&P 15 Volunteer XV Pro, with a suggested retail price of $1,569.
Back home in Connecticut, Falber, the former marketing executive, still admired the “M&P” name. But “Volunteer” felt different to him. He shrugged off the suggestion that it was just a nod to Smith & Wesson’s decision to begin moving its headquarters from liberal Massachusetts to conservative Tennessee, whose nickname is the Volunteer State.
Putting that name on such a powerful rifle evoked scenes of armed civilian patrols along the country’s southern border and at racial justice protests, Falber said.
“It’s just appealing to the worst levels of what you can conjure up in someone’s mind,” he said.
Maybe, he said, it will help Smith & Wesson sell the AR-15. “But,” he added, “how many more guns can they possibly sell?”
About this report
Colt acquired the AR-15 patent and trademark from Armalite in 1959. The patent expired, leaving many companies to produce their own weapons, commonly called AR-style rifles. While Colt still holds the trademark, “AR-15″ has become a ubiquitous term for a popular style of gas-operated, magazine-fed semiautomatic rifles. For this reason, we refer to the rifle broadly as the AR-15 in this series.