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The Curse of the AR-15

How the gun became a cultural icon—and unmade America

The last time I went to Las Vegas, the LED billboards on the strip had stopped advertising Cirque du Soleil and showgirls, and instead were displaying the phone numbers for trauma and suicide helplines. It was Thursday, October 5, 2017, four days after a man with an arsenal had opened fire from his hotel room window in the Mandalay Bay resort and casino onto the Route 91 Harvest Festival down below, while Jason Aldean was performing. From my room in the adjacent Delano, I could still see the crime scene: the area cordoned off with police tape and cop cars. The local radio station was doing nearly nonstop open phone lines for people to process their grief.

Most of the weapons that were found in the assailant’s room that day were variations of the AR-15—a gun that has become ubiquitous in American culture in the past 30 years, and the subject of Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson’s new book, American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15. There are as many as 44 million AR-15–style rifles in circulation in the United States today, nearly a tenth of the total 393 million guns in private hands in this country. The AR-15 is a semiautomatic rifle (its military counterpart, the M16, is fully automatic), capable of firing off bullets as fast as you can pull the trigger, but it is far from unique in this capacity. It’s been used in a great number of mass shootings, of course, but not in all: The horrific 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, the deadliest mass shooting in modern history in the United States until the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 and the Vegas shooting the following year, was perpetrated using two handguns.

American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15
by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $32.00

And yet, the AR-15 remains what we talk about when we talk about guns in this country. When first introduced, its space-age design was strange and new, but in the decades since its outline has become the familiar symbol of American firearms—its silhouette found on truck windows and superimposed on U.S. flags, as well as in ads calling for commonsense gun laws. Its distinguishing features are its easy ability to be customized, and its single-minded purpose: the fast, indiscriminate firing of small-caliber bullets. Its introduction into the postwar United States heralded the shift away from wood and steel rifles designed for marksmen to mass consumer objects that would come to represent a specific kind of aggressive machismo.

American Gun attempts to unravel the strange history of this weapon, from an unlikely engineering success, to a marketing and branding coup, to an object singularly associated with the current catastrophic state of American culture. The rise of the AR-15 represents the end result of Eisenhower’s feared “military-industrial complex”: private corporations making weapons of war to sell both to the military and ordinary citizens. But the story of American Gun is also the story of the changing face of America’s fascination with guns, from the image of the skilled hunter to the macho dude whose ferocious weapon is also stunningly simple to use. The gun that unmade America was built to address a secret, long-suppressed problem: The American fighting man just wasn’t that good at fighting. And if the AR-15 is so feared these days, it’s because it’s brought that sub-competence to the civilian world, where now literally any idiot can use it to unleash mayhem and death.

The birth of the AR-15, which takes up the first half of American Gun, reads as a classic American origin story: A plucky inventor recognizes a gap in the market, toils away in his free time with grit and ingenuity, and alters history. Eugene Stoner was born in 1922 in the tiny town of Gosport, Indiana. He spent World War II working in aviation ordnance for the Marines, repairing large-caliber guns on planes and devoting his spare time to new weapons. By the 1950s, he was in Southern California, designing airplane parts, when word began to trickle out that the military was dissatisfied with the standard-issue rifle, the M1. GIs had come to view it as undependable, and it was under-matched against the Soviets’ new automatic AK-47, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. Stoner set out to make a better mousetrap.

What he would later describe as a “kind of a hobby that got out of hand” led him to a series of innovations. Rifles were traditionally made of heavy wood and steel; Stoner introduced the use of cheap, stamped aluminum parts. It was by no means the first automatic rifle, but he patented a far more efficient system for using the energy expended in a rifle shot to recock the chamber for the next round, increasing the efficiency of automatic fire. Stoner also realized that smaller caliber bullets would not only fire faster and more accurately, but they would do far more damage to a target than larger caliber bullets. Whereas larger bullets tend to punch straight through human bodies, smaller bullets, Stoner would later explain, “will go unstable faster, and therefore create a larger wound cavity than you would normally expect.” The result was a highly portable, highly destructive weapon.

In this story of can-do spirit, Stoner gets his big break through a chance meeting. In the spring of 1954, he was testing his homemade guns at a range in Topanga Canyon, when he was approached by George C. Sullivan, a salesman who founded the ArmaLite weapons division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp. In McWhirter and Elinson’s telling, ArmaLite had a broad, vague mandate to “design off-the-wall stuff that Fairchild could sell to the U.S. or other governments,” with very little oversight or interference. Eventually the company produced a strange, futuristic-looking gun—it had no wood at all, and very little steel even. This was ArmaLite’s tenth design, hence its name: the AR-10. Stoner continued to refine the gun while Sullivan pitched it to military brass; finally, the company’s fifteenth design, even smaller and lighter than its predecessors, was ready.

It’s a classic American tale not just because of Stoner’s determination, but also because of the tides of graft and grifting that helped the gun’s rise to fame. The AR-15’s adoption by the U.S. military was hampered by corruption: The Army’s bureaucracy didn’t want a gun that hadn’t been developed in-house by military personnel; they repeatedly pushed the less-effective M14, skewing performance tests and attempting to tarnish the AR-15’s reputation. Without government contracts, the gun’s sales languished, and in 1959 ArmaLite moved to off-load the product, selling manufacturing rights to Colt. When the military finally began purchasing the AR-15 (rechristened the “M16”) for GIs fighting in Vietnam, they altered the design (against Stoner’s recommendations) to save money, sacrificing its effectiveness and earning it a reputation for jamming at crucial moments.

If it seems at times that American Gun gives Eugene Stoner the Inspired Genius treatment that, say, Walter Isaacson has reserved for Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, the book never fully lets you forget that Stoner designed a killing machine, and that he knew it. As a Dallas Morning News reporter who observed rifle instructors in 1966 put it, “Killing people is what it is built for, and what it does with great efficiency.”

The second half of the book chronicles the introduction of the AR-15 into American civilian life, and the deadly consequences that ensued. Colt’s decision to release a semiautomatic version into the sporting market in the 1960s did not attract much interest at the time. The gun’s nontraditional appearance did not appeal to the hunting community, nor did its ability to fire rapidly. To hunt game, a competent hunter doesn’t need a thing that sprays bullets at short range; they need a steady rifle with a high caliber, something that can bring down a deer in a single, well-aimed shot. As a machine designed to kill humans, Stoner’s gun had little to offer the hunting community, and at first it barely sold.

But as America’s hunting culture waned, new customers emerged: people interested in killing other humans. Its first use in a homicide committed by a civilian appears to have been in the 1975 Pine Ridge murders, for which the Native American activist Leonard Peltier was later convicted. Its first use in a mass shooting came two years later, when six people were killed in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Another mass killing in Pennsylvania in 1982 prompted the county prosecutor who handled the case, Robert Gillespie, to later remark: “I felt the weapon should be banned for civilians…. The devastation that was done by that gun was shocking to me.”

After Colt’s patent expired in 1977, the gun spread even further, as other manufacturers began making their own versions of Stoner’s rifle (though Colt retains the trademark on the term “AR-15” itself). By the late 1970s, it was gaining popularity among white nationalists and far-right survivalists. The cover of the infamous white nationalist novel The Turner Diaries, published in 1978, depicts an AR-15. In 1985, J. David McFarland, author of AR-15, M16 Assault Rifle Handbook, wrote that many of the “people purchasing the AR-15 today are survivalists who feel that if and when the ultimate chaos hits (whether from nuclear war, natural disaster, economic collapse or whatever), the old .30-30 that they carry into the woods every fall just won’t cut the mustard in a prolonged firefight.” Among the fans of the AR-15 was cult leader David Koresh, who amassed hundreds of parts to build the gun in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in preparation for Armageddon.

But the real turning point in the AR-15’s journey from a curiosity to an awful icon was the 1994 assault weapons ban. The legislation was prompted by a 1989 shooting in Stockton, California, where five children were killed, but took years to build enough steam to get through Congress. The finished bill intended to eliminate the public sale of military-style weapons that could cause mass carnage, but it also tried to preserve hunters’ rights; accordingly, it focused on various “military” features to determine whether a weapon was a “semiautomatic assault rifle,” including bayonet fixtures, pistol grips, and other aesthetic features that would appeal (it was thought) to killers rather than hunters. But fundamentally, the law didn’t restrict the central feature of a semiautomatic rifle: its ability to fire however fast you can pull the trigger.

In McWhirter and Elinson’s discussion of the 1994 ban, it becomes clear that one of the singular failures of the bill was that it did not attempt to give gun manufacturers an incentive to abandon assault rifles. Had these companies been given commensurate government contracts or financial incentives to shift their business models, perhaps they might not have set out to circumvent the spirit of the law with such zeal. As it was, companies like Colt faced bankruptcy over the loss of their AR-15 civilian segment if they could not find a work-around. Accordingly, they got started on finding the legislation’s many loopholes, and marketed new versions of the gun that evaded the ban, making simple changes like removing the bayonet lug and the flash suppressor—features that were listed in the bill but had no impact on the gun’s basic functionality. As one of the arms designers at Bushmaster crowed, “When these idiots wrote [the legislation], they wrote it cosmetically.”

By the time the ban ended in 2004, the AR-15 was everywhere. In the three decades before the ban, 400,000 had been produced; while the ban was in effect, nearly 900,000 were made. In the 20 years since the ban’s end, the number of AR-15s sold has increased exponentially. For one, the bill inadvertently revealed one of the main selling points of the gun: It lends itself to easy customization. (“I would compare it to custom cars and trucks,” one gunmaker tells the authors, explaining that, just as women’s fashion contains endless possibilities for personalization, the AR-15 is the “easiest thing to accessorize in the male world other than cars and motorcycles.”) Additionally, the ban played to another core element of the American psyche: As another gunmaker put it, “If you want to sell something to an American, you tell him he can’t have it.”

Reading the second half of American Gun is like watching a Shakespearean tragedy: You witness a whole culture gradually slipping away to unstoppable forces of capitalism, greed, and destruction, with an ever-rising body count in their wake. To their credit, the authors gradually shift focus from the triumphs of the manufacturers to the stories of victims and survivors of their products. The book is heartbreaking, and at times claustrophobic, as it revisits a litany of America’s worst moments: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—terms that once denoted places, communities, schools, lives, and which now to the majority of Americans signify only devastation and bloodshed.

But why this gun? When Eugene Stoner first set out to design the AR-15, military thinking was at a turning point. By 1952, the Pentagon had determined that success in battle was not due to marksmanship, with American service members using long-range rifles at great distances to take out targets. Rather, war was close-fought, and troops under fire shot without precision; the key to success, the military now believed, lay in guns that sprayed as many bullets as possible. They were slow to adapt their weaponry to this understanding, but it represented a sea change not only in tactics and technology, but also in the way warriors imagined themselves. As John Ellis wrote in his 1975 book, The Social History of the Machine Gun, rifles like the AR-15 “negated all the old human virtues—pluck, fortitude, patriotism, honor—and made them as nothing in the face of a deadly stream of bullets, a quite unassailable mechanical barrier.”

The machine gun, in essence, undercuts all the pageantry and symbolism surrounding the American fighting man: His job is not to display skill or heroism, so much as it is to dispense as much firepower as possible. Thus, American Gun suggests, the AR-15’s awful popularity. Among its biggest consumers were the type of men the industry itself derisively referred to as “couch commandos” and “tactards” (short for “tactical retards”): “wannabes” who were trying to look cool but lacked any skill or discipline. “The gun looked martial and intimidating,” McWhirter and Elinson write, “but Eugene Stoner had designed it to be easy to aim and shoot for just about anyone…. In many ways, the AR-15 was the ideal firearm for the modern American man: it looked macho, but he didn’t have to put much effort into shooting it.” Even the stupidest of high schoolers could use it to murder dozens of classmates in seconds.

The gun manufacturers know this, and they play to it. Among the most notorious ad campaigns for the AR-15 was one launched by Bushmaster and featured in Maxim magazine in 2009. A series of proposed ads leaned entirely into toxic masculinity with lines like, “Helping Men Grow a Pair Since 1978” and “It Is Never Too Late to Be a Man,” with the final published ad reading “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” The campaign’s success was emblematic of how manufacturers have consistently marketed the gun through appeals to insecurity and vulnerability. To this mix, it always helped to add paranoia. In the book, Bushmaster’s former chief executive John DeSantis recalls the sales boost that followed the Y2K panic: “People were just concerned there was going to be mass rioting in the streets. A lot of the crazies bought semiautomatic rifles and yeah, we exploited that situation.”

This surge in gun ownership is one of the many ways the United States remains singular, if not unique. Other countries, such as Australia (after the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996), banned assault rifles and instituted buybacks, effectively ending mass shootings in those countries. But a central resistance to such measures in the United States is the idea that guns are necessary for patriots to resist a coming totalitarian state where they’ll need to take the law into their own hands. This has unequivocally failed to happen in any other country that has banned assault rifles, but it has not stopped the belief among many that semiautomatic rifles are necessary for purposes that go beyond hunting or home defense. Ultimately, American Gun is an indictment on a paranoid, apocalyptic country, riven with people who cannot help but see their neighbors, as well as their own government, as perpetual threats that must be met with deadly force.

Industry executives like DeSantis are surprisingly candid in their willingness to exploit that human weakness to get as many lethal weapons out the door as possible. One of the most telling moments comes in an interview with former DPMS Panther Arms CEO Randy Luth, who refused to participate in marketing for video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: While other manufacturers collaborated with game designers to get free advertising by having their weapons accurately re-created in the game, Luth refused, because he wanted to avoid “using our brand name to teach kids how to kill humans.” Yet he pioneered an agreement with SoftAir USA to make BB guns that looked like AR-15s with his company’s logo, to ensure that kids too young to buy their own weapons would become aware of the AR-15 brand from an early age. “I felt that just like Camel cigarettes,” he tells the authors, “if you introduce kids to the brand at a young age, they’re gonna remember that brand.”

Luth, it seems, wanted to have it both ways: to get young people hooked to encourage repeat sales and brand loyalty, while simultaneously attempting to deny what everyone has always known about the AR-15—that it exists to extinguish human lives. And yet, he is at least a hypocrite; most of the other manufacturers quoted here don’t even pretend to care.

A lucid, straightforward, and well-researched and -reported work, American Gun promises, via its back cover, “fairness and compassion.” By the book’s end, I found myself wondering why fairness is a worthy goal here. I don’t know what fairness we owe these manufacturers or the individuals who buy their products. There is no argument here—compassionate or otherwise—that can explain why an everyday person needs a weapon designed solely to kill as many people as possible in seconds. And that’s because no defensible argument exists.

And it’s not just mass shootings. Guns are implicated regularly in suicide, domestic abuse, and accidents. All of it needless. There are those who loudly maintain that their rights as responsible gun owners are infringed by any kind of regulation, and such individuals will always be the most culpable enablers of this violence. Behind them only slightly are the manufacturers themselves, who rely on paranoia and insecurity to drive sales and reap profits.

Meanwhile, on the message board website, posters are debating Jason Aldean’s new belligerent single, “Try That in a Small Town.” The song and its music video threaten vigilante violence through jingoistic lyrics and dog whistle politics. “Not a big fan of the song but like the message. Leftists aren’t people anymore,” one writes approvingly. But for others, Aldean will never be truly on their side because of his comments after the Las Vegas massacre: “Isn’t this the same douche canoe who said guns ‘were too easy to get’ a few years back? fuck him.” In the world of the AR-15, not only are political enemies actively dehumanized and worthy of slaughter, but even surviving a mass shooting yourself is no grounds for sympathy or understanding. All that matters is guns—getting them, keeping them, and inevitably wielding them.