In the coming months, there will be a great deal of debate about so called "assault rifles", including the AR15 and it's bigger brother, the AR10. What most people outside the firearms community don't know this that these rifles are - by far - the best selling type of rifle in the United States today. When a hunter or target shooter goes shopping for a rifle to use in their sport, there is a good chance they will select an AR15 or an AR10.
This is important, because both gun control advocates and many people who simply are not into guns, think that only a few, slightly off kilter, militia types own these guns. In reality, these guns are VERY mainstream in both the hunting and target shooting community. Millions upon millions have been sold and are used legally by millions of Americans. Threatening to outlaw these rifles is likely to be viewed by most gun owners as the same thing as outlawing rifles period. It's a bit like saying "We aren't going to ban all cars and trucks, at least not right now. We are only going to outlaw GM vehicles." and then expecting that people who currently don't own a GM car or truck to say, "Oh, as long as you are not going to ban my car, that's OK."
So, why is it that these rifles are so popular?
1) Crossover between military and civilian firearms development.
Most people don't realize that military and civilian firearms have always developed in parallel. The Henry lever action rifle - which later became a famous civilian gun as the Winchester - was first developed for, and used by, Northern troops during the Civil War. Indeed, since it was able to fire 16 rounds in 25-30 seconds, it became known as the most powerful gun of the war. Post war, it was developed into a whole series of guns that are still being made today. The 45/70 cartridge, adopted by the Army in a single shot rifle, in 1873, was used in some of those Winchesters and is still popular today. The first semi-automatic rifles made in the US were hunting rifles (Teddy Roosevelt used one). The 30-06 cartridge, developed by the ordinance department for the 1903 Springfield, was (and is) popular as a sporting round, and was made available in civilian bolt action firearms, in less than 20 years. The 7.62 NATO round was released by Winchester (as the .308 Winchester) and chambered in a variety of firearms before the military even started using it. The Springfield, Enfield, and M1 Garand semi-auto rifle have been used in civilian target shooting for as much as 100 years. The cartridge used in the M16 (and in most, but not all AR15s) was developed from a civilian target and hunting cartridge. In Vietnam, US Army and Marine snipers used civilian sporting rifles made by both Winchester and Remington. The famed .50 Cal BMG sniper rifle was developed for the sport of extremely long range target shooting. Although sales have been banned in California, never once has one been used in a crime - and they are still used as very long range target rifles. For the last 150 years, military and civilian firearms have cross pollinated each other. It should be no surprise that civilian versions of the most successful and long lived military rifle in history would be extremely popular with civilians for exactly the same reasons the military has kept it for so long.
2) 50 years of military training
For the last half-century, every Soldier, Marine, Airman and Sailor who has been trained to fire a rifle, learned to fire an M16, or the carbine version, the M4. The semi-automatic only, civilian version of these fully automatic/semi-automatic rifles is the AR15. (The AR does not stand for Assault Rifle, it stands for Armalite - the company that designed it.)
When these folks leave the military, if they want to take up target shooting or even hunting, they desire a rifle that handles, feels and functions in the same way as the rifle they learned on and are familiar with. This may be the biggest factor that makes these rifles so popular.
If they want a rifle for target shooting, of many, many types - they probably will choose an AR15 - likely in the original caliber of 5.56 NATO (.223 Remington). If they want to hunt larger deer, elk, moose or bear - they will probably choose an AR10, likely in 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester). Surplus ammo and empties for reloading are available at low prices in both calibers.
This has always been the case. In the second half of the 1800s, the military used single shots and some lever action rifles. Through the early 1900s, these were the most popular rifles with target shooters and hunters. World War I came along and millions of young men learned to shoot bolt action rifles. In the 1920s and 1930s bolt action rifles became the most popular type with civilians. During WWII, Soldiers and Marines learned to shoot both bolt action and semi-auto rifles. After the war, semi-auto sales increased. Then, in the 1960s, the military adopted the M16 - the military version of the AR15. By the 1980s, AR15 sales started to climb.
These shooters don't buy the guns to commit any kind of crimes (in fact, in spite of their popularity they rank behind knives, blunt objects, bare hands, and shotguns as murder weapons). They don't buy them to overthrow the government. These law abiding shooters buy them to target shoot, to hunt and in some cases, to protect their families. Would you argue that a rancher on the Arizona - Mexico border could not legitimately use one of these rifles for self defense?
I don't know what we will do when the military starts using ray guns, but 150 years of history says that what soldiers use will become the predominant firearm type in the civilian market within 20 years.
3) Modern design
One of the reasons the anti-gun crowd can demonize the AR15 is that to untrained eyes it doesn't "look like" a civilian firearm. Ruger firearms makes a rifle called the Mini-14. It shoots the same round as the AR15 and M16. It shoots just as fast and takes magazines in the same capacity range (5-30+ rounds). However, in California - which has the nation's tightest assault weapons ban - a stock AR15 is banned and a stock Mini-14 is not. Why?
The biggest reason is that the Mini-14 has a wood stock and is usually made of blue steel. The AR15 does not have any wood, it is made of plastic, aircraft aluminum and some steel that is finished black to match the plastic and aluminum. If you show a person only minimally familiar with firearms the Mini-14, they will say it "looks like" a typical civilian gun. Show that same person an AR15 and they will say that it looks like a military gun.
In reality, the AR15 looks like it does because it is modern. It is made of modern materials that don't rust or corrode nearly as much as steel and wood. Leaving wood out and replacing it with plastic eliminates the wood swelling and shrinking in different conditions - which causes the rifle to shoot to a different point of aim - often causing a shooter to miss their target. Aluminum and plastic are a lot lighter than steel and wood, resulting in a gun that, all other things being equal, is lighter. All of these features are attractive to both military users and civilian target shooters and hunters. A pistol grip makes it easier to fire more accurately. Although they make the AR15 or AR10 rifle appear different and more "military", they do not make it any more powerful or deadly than the standard wood and blue steel Mini-14, a rifle that is left off of most ban lists because it originated as a civilian rifle and is only used by civilians - including many hunters.
Which one is more deadly? Neither one. They are just as deadly, just as good or evil as the person using them.
4) Modular design
Again, this is something most people have no knowledge of. The AR15 and AR10 rifles are the most modular and "customizable" rifles in the world. Nearly every part is changeable by the end user. There are all kinds of buttstocks (both fixed and adjustable), all kinds of trigger mechanisms with different "feels" and sensitivity, magazines in many capacities, and upper receiver assemblies in countless calibers. It can be equipped with many different sighting systems - including many kinds of scopes and metal (iron) sights. Barrels come in many calibers and every diameter and length the law allows. You can have no mounting rails or more rails than you can possibly use.
Another advantage of the two sub-assembly design (they are called "uppers": the part with the bolt, barrel, and sights, and "lowers": the part with the buttstock and trigger assembly, which is legally the firearm) - is that one "lower" can be used with many different "uppers". This allows a shooter to have one upper with a long and heavy barrel, in say ,223 for target shooting or long range ground squirrel hunting and another in the powerful .458 SOCOM cartridge for hunting the largest game in North America, in thick brush at fairly close range. Since the uppers are not firearms (they cannot function without a lower), the gun owner not only saves a lot of money by not buying another lower, he or she also saves the cost and hassle of additional background checks and other government requirements - which can be considerable in some states.
Few other firearms designs are as modular as the AR10 and AR15.
50 years of development has resulted in a design that can be made so accurate that the Army and Marines are about to adopt an AR10 variant in 7.62 NATO as their primary sniper rifle. The Air Force has already done so. The modular design makes it easy to build a semi-automatic rifle that - for the first time in history - meets or exceeds that of a bolt action target, sniper or hunting rifle. The one thing a rifle shooter seeks more than anything else is accuracy.
So, these are the reasons with the AR15 and AR10 designs are the best selling rifles in the country. This is the truth about them. This is why we own them and why when the administration tries to ban them, they will find themselves facing a lot of political opposition from average gun owners who know the truth: If they can ban the AR15 because of how it looks, even though it kills fewer people than bare hands, they can ban anything.
If they can ban guns that are so seldom used in murders, that when they are used the range is usually so close that a semi-auto pistol would be just as effective, than handguns will be next - because they are the number one murder weapon used in America.
We gun owners are willing to talk and we are willing to listen. We will see if the administration and the gun control advocates are willing to do the same, however since they have not done so in many, many years, I will not hold my breath.